One of the Problems With Our Politics

Ohio_US_Congressional_District_12_(since_2013)

The Ohio 12th Congressional District as of 2013.

This is the congressional district, the Ohio 12th, in which I live. Do you see the problem? Why would you create a district like this?

I live in northwest Franklin County, in the city of Columbus, just below the dotted county line above which is the word “Powell.” Columbus is the focal point of most of our lives–where we work, the teams we root for, the politics we pay attention to, the parks we play in, the libraries and other public services we use. There is a highly populated sliver of this district in northern Franklin County outside I-270 with a tongue reaching down into Clintonville, significantly, all west of I-71, a significant ethnic demarcation line in that part of the city. Why would you carve up the Franklin County portions of the district like this?

Much of the rest of this weirdly shaped district is exurban or rural populations. Delaware County to the north has seen an explosion of affluent home construction by upper middle class individuals. Some contend that Delaware County carried George Bush in his slim election victories in Ohio. In national campaigns, Democrats come to Columbus, and Republicans to Delaware County. Morrow, Richland, Licking and southern Muskingum Counties are heavily rural counties. Why would you draw up a district like this?

The answer, very simply, is to make it a safe Republican seat. Only for eight years in the 1930’s, and two years in the 1980’s has the Ohio 12th been held by a Democrat. Why do I write about all this now?

As I write (a day ahead of posting), we are having a special election in this district. Pat Tiberi, the Republican representative vacated his seat in January. Troy Balderson, a Republican from Zanesville, and Danny O’Conner, a Democrat from the northern part of Columbus, are contesting the seat both now for the remainder of the unexpired term, and again in November for a new two year term. It is the one congressional election between now and November and HUGE amounts of advertising money on both sides have been poured into this race. Polling indicates the two candidates are separated by a mere point, statistically insignificant. Everyone is looking at this race as to whether there will be a “blue wave” in November.

Some of the craziness of this gerrymandered district is reflected in a remark made by the Republican candidate on his last campaign stop in his home town of Zanesville on Monday, August 6. He said:

“My opponent is from Franklin County, and Franklin County has been challenging. We don’t want someone from Franklin County representing us.”

It happens that one-third of the population of the district lives in that sliver of northern Franklin County and the remark seems to suggest that “us” somehow doesn’t include Franklin County, or that if the candidate from Franklin County were elected, he wouldn’t represent the “us” the Republican candidate was speaking to.

That’s the problem with gerrymandering. Political leaders of either party don’t have to think about representing everyone–only the base that gives them an election margin. Draw the district along the right demographic lines and you usually don’t have to worry. Both parties do this, which helps account for our highly polarized political conversation and gridlocked political process. A March 26, 2018 New York Times article states that at that time, only 48 of 435 House seats were considered “up for grabs.”

The sad thing is that representatives end up representing only some of us. If the Republican candidate wins, I wonder if he will represent me because I live in “Franklin County.” If the other wins, I’m sure some will wonder if their voices will be heard. Furthermore, this focuses on how we differ and not on what unites us, as Ohioans, and Americans. It seems to me that one could run focusing on what unites us even in our current gerrymandered district. But failing to hew to current party orthodoxy could be costly. If more districts were competitive, candidates would have to develop positions that reflect the concerns of all the district. And they would have to serve and listen to all the district during intervening years.

I think it a good thing that the race in my district is competitive. But I am concerned that this reflects more a political moment of resistance to a president unpopular in some quarters than the result of a consistently competitive district. Our political process needs to be built on something better than waves of political discontent or balkanized districts of safe seats. We have passed redistricting reforms in Ohio this spring that await the 2020 census. The process won’t be complete until 2023. We’ve yet to see what will result.

What can we do in the meanwhile? One thing as citizens is to identify and focus on the issues that affect all of us and not allow ourselves to be divided by the political parties. All but the super-rich face the issue of the cost of health care. No matter what we think about causes, all of us face the effects of climate change. We may not have it so bad in Ohio right now, but what happens when other parts of our country come seeking our water, or start moving here when other places become unlivable? How are we dealing with opioid use that are turning cities into war zones and rural areas into places of despair and grief.

The other thing is to pay attention and communicate about the things that matter to us–call, write, email, visit, and if we are not being heard, use our free speech rights to write in newspapers, on blogs, and to protest publicly.

We’ve let this happen to our country. We’ve allowed ourselves to be divided into demographic units and played up to on “hot button” issues instead of demanding responsible governance across the board and political leadership that values all of us and calls us together to pursue the best for our country. Today, and in November, we vote in my congressional district. It’s easy to collect my sticker and say I’ve done my duty. But as citizens, it has only begun.

[Written Tuesday, August 7, 2018] Update: Republican Troy Balderson narrowly defeated (a one percent margin) Democrat Danny O’Connor. A Green party candidate accounted for much of the difference in the other two candidates’ vote totals. They run against each other again in the November general election.

Thank You, Elbridge Gerry!

Elbridge Gerry

Elbridge Gerry

Now that the shutdown appears to be coming to an end (at least for 90 days), we have to wonder how we got this series of legislative stalemates. Turns out, according to an NBC News story, we can thank Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry who, in 1812 drew a congressional district to secure his party’s election that looked like a salamander–hence gerrymandering.

This is the practice that both parties have used to their advantage, and particularly House Republicans.  In 1995, 79 Republicans represented districts won by President Clinton.  Today, only 17 districts that supported President Obama in the last election are represented by Republicans.  Districts are drawn in all sorts of bizarre shapes that in no way reflect the settlement patterns of our country–only voting patterns by party.  This allows for those in the political extremes, right and left, to dominate because they have a more or less assured base.

Local officials have to serve diverse populations of citizens in their municipalities.  In fact, in our city, the city council members are all “at large” which means all of them have to consider the interests of the whole city of Columbus, about as diverse politically as the state of Ohio.  Columbus city government works about as well as any government I have seen–not perfect but problems get tackled, agreements are struck, and the city, which is financially in good shape, moves forward. City leaders have to be elected by broader constituencies and so one never seems the appeals to political bases that you see in federal politics.

It could be different. Districts could be drawn to reflect the geography and settlement patterns of states and in ways where diverse classes and economic interests are represented in the same district rather than pitted against each other.  I am in the 12th congressional district of Ohio represented by a Republican, Pat Tiberi.  The district consists of  suburban Columbus, suburbs around Columbus and rural, basically Republican strongholds, including Delaware, Ohio, which many think elected George Bush in 2004.  People living within 2 miles of us in the city of Columbus are in a different district while residents of Zanesville, 40 plus miles away, and Mansfield, over 50 miles away are part of our district.  Does this make any sense?

Ohio attempted to pass a redistricting reform ballot initiative in 2012.  It was defeated, and a lot of money was spent by the anti-redistricting interests in the process.  Now it seems the only talk about reform is for stricter, anti-fraud measures which many suggest hit urban minority voters heaviest. Sadly, it appears to me that Ohio’s contribution to our political morass is simply “more of the same.” Even if we “vote the bums out”, without redistricting reform, I think we will just get more of the same.  Thank you, Elbridge Gerry!