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Mark Nordenberg on drawing Pennsylvania’s new legislative maps, GOP attacks, and what comes next

The longtime former University of Pittsburgh chancellor chairs the state’s Legislative Reapportionment Commission. We talked to him about redistricting.

Mark Nordenberg, chair of the Pennsylvania Legislative Reapportionment Commission, at the Capitol in Harrisburg earlier this month.
Mark Nordenberg, chair of the Pennsylvania Legislative Reapportionment Commission, at the Capitol in Harrisburg earlier this month.Read moreMatt Rourke / AP

Republicans are furious with Mark Nordenberg.

The longtime former University of Pittsburgh chancellor, and the current head of its Institute of Politics, Nordenberg was appointed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court this year to chair the state’s Legislative Reapportionment Commission. The commission draws maps of state House and Senate districts every decade, which help shape power in Harrisburg.

So when the commission unveiled the new maps last week, and Republicans saw the House districts would erode much of the advantage they enjoy under the current map, they went on the attack. Beyond criticizing the map and the redistricting process, they leveled several accusations against Nordenberg, including that he put his thumb on the scale to benefit Democrats and that he specifically targeted certain Republicans because of past votes against funding for Pitt.

Nordenberg responded to those accusations in a lengthy interview Tuesday with The Inquirer. He discussed the mapmaking process, defended himself, and explained why he thinks more changes to the districts need to be made.

Here’s some of what he had to say.

On Republican accusations that the House map is a Democratic gerrymander

“The process was not only open and fair and transparent as far as the public was concerned, it was a carefully crafted process providing equal opportunity for the representatives of each caucus,” Nordenberg said.

An Inquirer analysis of the preliminary map, conducted by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, found it still gives Republicans an edge of 104 seats to 99, based on the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. But that’s significantly less of an advantage than under the current map, which has 118 Republican or Republican-leaning districts. It’s also better for Democrats, thanks to a number of competitive Democratic-leaning seats, than the state’s political geography would suggest on its own.

» READ MORE: Is the new Pa. House map better for Democrats or Republicans? We tested it.

“This map, which continues to favor Republicans, could hardly be considered a political gerrymander,” Nordenberg said. “And I certainly was not a part of any effort to disadvantage the Republicans in any way other than to reflect, in the maps, the population trends that have changed the state over the last ten years.”

On why population changes mean more Republican incumbents are drawn into districts together

Those population trends broadly reflect decline or anemic growth in Republican areas and growth in Democratic areas, especially suburbs.

“The most significant population shortfalls could be found in districts to the North and to the West that were represented by Republicans,” Nordenberg said. “Inevitably, then, the process was going to bring more of them together.”

The map itself is a map that favors the Republicans. It doesn’t favor them as much as the current map does, but that is a product of the changing demographics of the commonwealth, where there really have been two central themes: The first is the districts in the North and West either losing population or gaining population much more slowly than the districts to the South and the East, which clearly meant that there had to be a shifting of district lines across the state in order to advance the principle of ‘one person, one vote.’ The other was a dramatic increase in the population of minority communities within the state compared with a decline, actually, in the population of the white community.
Mark Nordenberg

Republicans have seized on the fact the map draws together 12 or 14 Republicans into the same district, compared with two or four Democrats, depending on the outcome of special elections.

Nordenberg said his team, along with the caucus leaders, specifically made changes to the map to protect incumbents.

We did not do any of that unilaterally, we discussed it with the caucus teams. Initially, the Republicans were quite reluctant to acknowledge that the population changes would inevitably draw some of their members into contests with each other. Eventually, they did come to understand that would be the case, and we actually did talk about some of the pairings.
Mark Nordenberg

On not using partisan data at first

“The mapping software used by the commission team did not include any partisan data, unlike the mapping software that is used by the caucuses,” Nordenberg said. “So our initial review … was not influenced by partisan data.”

That included not having incumbents’ addresses.

“There did come a point in time when we received from the caucuses incumbent information, so that largely, I think, we could try to avoid unnecessary contests between incumbents,” he said. “I had gone into the process feeling as if there was a measure of respect that should be shown to incumbents.”

» READ MORE: 5 takeaways from Pennsylvania’s new state House and Senate maps

After receiving the addresses, Nordenberg said, he tried to separate incumbents.

“You probably also could look at the map and see how close to district lines some of the incumbents are, which again is a sign that we tried to be as careful as we could about that,” he said. “Because certainly those lines could have been redrawn in ways that would have created more contests.”

On Republicans who voted against funding Pitt

State Reps. Perry Stambaugh (R., Perry) and Joe Hamm (R., Lycoming) accused Nordenberg of specifically targeting them because they had voted against funding the University of Pittsburgh, votes they took in opposition to the school’s fetal tissue research. (The funding measure went on to pass.)

“As a result of that vote, though, I now feel my constituents are being punished by this new redistricted map,” Stambaugh said Tuesday at a news conference. “For him to be drawing districts affecting people who voted against funding for his school, it seems to me that represents a huge and very big potential conflict of interest.”

Nordenberg flatly denied the charge, and many other lawmakers who voted against the funding weren’t drawn together.

“There is absolutely no truth to that claim,” he said. “Typically, when people resort to arguments of that type, it means that they have little to say about the merits of the dispute.”

When he watched lawmakers level the charge, he said, he didn’t know the lawmakers or their policy positions.

I don’t know any of the people who were speaking. I don’t know what positions they might have taken on any issues, including issues involving the University of Pittsburgh. When I left office, I decided that 19 years was plenty of time to be involved in any of the many activities that were my responsibility, including state governmental relations. So this isn’t something I’ve followed closely. I would not have known what any of these representatives’ positions were on any particular issues. In fact, I don’t know and did not know of these representatives.
Mark Nordenberg

On Republicans being involved in the House mapmaking process

House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre) said he felt little of his input on the maps was taken into account.

“Were we able to give some input? Yes. Did they listen? Yes,” he said. But “as far as the overall drawing of the maps, I felt like our input was nominal and very frustrating, regardless of how many conversations we had.”

Nordenberg denied minimizing Benninghoff’s participation in any way.

I’m sorry he feels that way, because I have high regard for Leader Benninghoff and feel as if we have developed a good relationship over the period of months that we have been working together. We met with him as frequently as we met with any leaders, we met with his team as frequently as we met with any leaders’. His team submitted maps and supporting information at the same pace as other teams did. In fact, I believe that the maps that were submitted by the House Republican caucus played a big role in the lines that were drawn in substantial parts of the commonwealth. Where they probably differ is in areas of disagreement, perhaps, but I don’t think that there was anything about the process that disadvantaged Leader Benninghoff or his caucus.
Mark Nordenberg

On drawing districts to empower racial and ethnic minorities

The Voting Rights Act requires giving communities of color, when possible, the opportunity to elect the candidates of their choice — which usually means creating districts with large proportions of voters of color.

Nordenberg said he was able to create such districts while balancing the other legal requirements.

We were attentive to all of those other requirements as we explored the possibilities that existed to create minority opportunity districts — and I use that term broadly, as I did last week, to include VRA-required districts, minority influence districts, and coalition districts. It is my belief that we were quite successful in abiding by the other requirements even as we went about the process of trying to create those opportunities. And one of the things that really stands out about those districts is that they have no incumbents, which does mean that the minority communities do not have to overcome the incumbent advantage to elect someone from their community.
Mark Nordenberg

On ownership of the House map

While Republicans seek to pin the map on Nordenberg, he said it was very much the product of both parties.

“It is the map of the Legislative Reapportionment Commission that voted to advance it as our preliminary map,” he said.

“Every caucus had the opportunity to fairly participate in the process, so it’s certainly not my map, and it’s not the map of the Democratic caucus,” Nordenberg said. “If I were to draw the map on my own, I’m sure I would do things differently. I’m equally certain that the same would be true of the Democratic leader. This is what emerged from a process that engaged all of the interested parties.”

On political pressures and attacks

“We worked very long days, in extended succession of days, and the political pressures were at some points intense,” Nordenberg said. “I think it is unfortunate that this is what politics has become. It’s always a little bit surprising when you see something emerging, even if you know, well, this is kind of the way it’s done these days.”

He said he would do it again, even having experienced the backlash.

My view is this: Pennsylvania democracy is very important to me. Pennsylvania has provided me with a wonderful home for most of my adult life. Under the constitution, someone has to shoulder these responsibilities. The Supreme Court asked me to do it. And I’m sure I would have said yes even if I had known more specifically what was going to unfold over the course of the last couple of days.
What I would say, too, is that I have a 45-year record of fairness in Pennsylvania. I have led a wide range of public service initiatives. I did have Republican leaders encouraging me to accept this position if it was offered to me. So I undertook the assignment for the best of reasons, I think, and it is my intention to see it through to a good end.
Mark Nordenberg

Asked whether he had received any inappropriate political pressure, Nordenberg said: “I would say that threats against the University of Pittsburgh are inappropriate, and — but — what can I say?”

The chair of the Allegheny County GOP told a WESA Pittsburgh radio reporter that people should stop donating to Pitt. And Republicans control both chambers of the legislature, meaning they have control over state funding for colleges and universities.

Asked whether any threats had been made directly to him, Nordenberg said, “Not directly, no.”

He declined to comment further.

On making changes to the maps before they’re finalized

Nordenberg said he expects the commission could make a number of changes.

“I have no doubt that we will be able to improve this map,” he said. “I also have made no claims that we understand every part of the state and the communities that reside in those parts.”

That includes some of the specific points raised by Republican lawmakers on Tuesday.

“There were … fair questions directed to the plan itself that are worthy of consideration, and I assume that we will hear more questions of that type as we move forward,” he said.

Nordenberg said issues raised include district boundaries that split communities and school districts. Cumberland County, an example cited by the lawmakers Tuesday, is worth reexamination, he said.

That is the kind of comment that I consider to be very legitimate and that we ought to go back and take a look with the comments made by the representative in mind. Of course, the issue is not whether Cumberland County is going to be cut or not, because given the population of the county and the size of a House district, there inevitably would be cuts to the county. There are cuts in the current map, there are cuts in the preliminary map. The question really is, are those cuts appropriate, and do they advance the goal of creating a map that is overall fair? And those, again, are things I think we should responsibly look at.
Mark Nordenberg

On the 84th District that Republicans call a gerrymander

Before the commission voted to approve the maps, Benninghoff held up a drawing of the proposed 84th House District near Williamsport, which he compared to the original 1812 political cartoon that gave gerrymandering its name (then-Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry approved a contorted, salamander-like district).

“I will quickly concede that that is an example of a poorly drawn district — one that certainly should be corrected as we finalize our product in the next 30 days,” Nordenberg said. “However, it is not an example of a political gerrymander. That is a Republican district that is surrounded on all sides by other Republican districts. There’s nothing about the design of that district that could conceivably help a Democrat.”

The voters who make up the proposed district voted 74% for Donald Trump in 2016 and 73% to reelect him in 2020. The nearby districts also voted heavily for Trump in both elections.

As for why the 84th District was drawn in that shape, Nordenberg said it was a ripple effect from a Republican request nearby.

“It was drawn that way to accommodate the suggested draw that came from the Republican caucus in a nearby area,” he said. “I’m sure that draw could have been accommodated more gracefully. In fact, we had ideas about how to do that, but frankly we ran out of time, because we have not drawn things unilaterally. We have gone to each of the affected caucuses to make certain they had a chance to review and respond, and we didn’t have a chance to do that here.”