Grand Old Gerrymandering

This time, inner suburbs are in the GOP's crosshairs

Low crime, good schools, and plentiful jobs in upscale Montgomery County have helped make Democratic Representative Joseph Hoeffel's suburban Philadelphia district one of the fastest-growing in Pennsylvania, according to figures released in the 2000 census. Meanwhile, the City of Brotherly Love has seen its population shrink more than 4% since 1990. Overall, the state stands to lose 2 of its 21 seats in Congress as a result of the census, which shows Pennsylvania's population growth to be slower than that of states in the South and West. So it would seem logical for the state legislature, which controls the redistricting process, to eliminate one of Philly's three congressional districts and keep Hoeffel's, with its rapid growth.

But Republicans, who dominate the legislature, have a different idea: They want to wipe Hoeffel's district off the political map and assign most of his suburban constituents to the districts now represented by Philly pols. Across the state, the same fate awaits Democrat Mike Doyle, who represents Pittsburgh's expanding inner suburbs.

Similar clashes will likely happen in other large cities. The 2000 census shows that while many cities around the country have posted surprising population gains since 1990, inner suburbs, which lie just outside the limits of cities such as Miami and Chicago, have grown even faster. More important in terms of political redistricting, many of the new suburbanites are minorities and immigrants, who usually favor the Dems. If the redistricting process that follows every 10-year census were a straightforward numbers affair, Democrats would gain congressional seats and make further inroads into the historically Republican suburbs.

But Republicans hope to block their way. The strategy is to stretch urban Democratic districts across city boundaries, absorbing the minorities who have moved to the inner suburbs--and leaving the remaining suburban districts all the more Republican. The plan stands a better chance than it did during the last redistricting in 1990, because the GOP controls many more state legislatures today. "In redistricting, you do basically what you think you can get away with and get through a court," says GOP expert David Winston. "It's a very brutal process."

ROULETTE. This redistricting roulette has profound implications. Many suburban Dems, like Hoeffel, are moderate New Democrats. If they are redistricted out of jobs, the new congressional boundaries will favor more liberal Dems in urban districts as well as more conservative Republicans in the outlying burbs. The upshot? Congress is likely to be more ideologically divided than ever. Redistricting "will hollow out the center," says American University government professor David Lublin.

To avoid a clash between cities and suburbs, liberal and centrist Democrats say they'll band together against the Republicans. That would be a shift from the 1980 and 1990 redistricting battles, when the GOP teamed up with minority groups to create maps more favorable to both Republicans and minorities, at the expense of white Democrats. "To succeed, Democrats have to pursue multiethnic coalitions," says Will Marshall, president of the centrist Democrats' Progressive Policy Institute. "We can't fall prey to the divide-and-conquer strategy of the Republicans."

The growth of inner suburbs is most evident in the industrial heartland. In addition to Pennsylvania, suburban Democrats are likely to get squeezed in Detroit and Cleveland. Even in some fast-growing states, Democrats from districts that surround Dallas, Houston, and Denver could lose out. Among the House members whose jobs are in jeopardy: House Minority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.) and House Democratic Caucus Chair Martin Frost (D-Tex.).

While Americans have been fleeing to the suburbs for decades, the redistricting battles stem from the fact that it's now minorities who are leaving. In recent years, Democrats have made steady gains in the inner suburbs. There has been explosive Latino and Asian-American growth in suburbs, as well as black flight from cities such as Philadelphia, Detroit, and Washington, D.C.

In the past 10 years, for example, Washington's African-American population has dropped 14%, while the city's suburbs have swelled by 20%. African Americans now comprise 48% of the city's inner suburbs, the 2000 census shows. "There's a suburbanization of diversity," says Rutgers University demographer James W. Hughes. "Conservative Republican suburbanites are fleeing to new McMansions in less congested [outer] suburbs."

The children of liberal city dwellers have moved to the suburbs, too. Socially liberal and fiscally moderate, they're open to the national GOP's economic message but are turned off by its social conservativism and hard-right environmental policies. In last fall's Presidential race, Democrat Al Gore swept the three traditionally Republican counties surrounding Philadelphia and won similar areas in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Michigan. "We don't think suburban districts are going to elect right-wing Republicans," argues Frost.

Or take Hoeffel's suburban Philly district, which had been a Republican bastion since the Civil War. A Democrat narrowly won the seat on Bill Clinton's coattails in 1992 but lost it two years later. Aided by a racially diverse coalition of new suburbanites, Hoeffel took the seat in 1998, and he beat a well-funded GOP state senator last year. If the legislature lumps the diverse parts of Hoeffel's district into city ones, the remnants--heavily white and wealthy--would make the adjacent suburban districts more likely to vote Republican.

Overall, Dems may be able to limit the GOP's net gain to no more than five seats. Democrats control California, Georgia, and North Carolina, which stand to gain four seats among them. Still, five seats would be a big blow to Dems, who otherwise have a good shot next year at regaining control of the House, where the GOP has a razor-thin margin of just six seats. But with redistricting largely in the hands of state GOP officials, the odds are against them.

By Richard S. Dunham and Lorraine Woellert in Washington D.C.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
    LEARN MORE