Fighting to Make Our Votes Count

Carol Kuniholm addressing the press at the Pennsylvania Capitol, with supporters of redistricting reform behind her.

Now that the Pennsylvania General Assembly has returned from summer recess, advocacy groups, like Fair Districts PA and March on Harrisburg, are intensifying their fight for redistricting reform. Explaining the importance of their mission, Carol Kuniholm, chair of Fair Districts PA, said at a recent press conference in Harrisburg:

For the first time in generations, many of our fellow citizens are questioning the underlying premises of democracy itself. … We feel our votes no longer count and our voices are no longer heard. When we look for causes, we see our gerrymandered districts and our lack of choice at the polls.

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Civil Rights Arrive in Pennsylvania: State Rep. Brian Sims Interview

Pennsylvania State Rep. Brian Sims (D., Philadelphia), the first openly gay candidate to win an election to the state General Assembly, made headlines last week with the passage of a resolution for recognizing the Human Rights Day.

In an exclusive interview with the Philadelphia Jewish Voice, he shared his plans for the next few years, a surprising Jewish connection, and a few thoughts on the House speaker, Daryl Metcalfe (R., Butler County).

Q: Where did the idea for the resolution on the Human Rights Day come from?

I had known of the Day for 15 years, since I heard of the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Last month, after the U.S. ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, invited me to speak on advocating for civil rights at local events in honor of the Day, I decided to propose a resolution for recognizing this day in Pennsylvania.

Q: Was it realizing that you were gay that brought you to the civil rights area?

I have first learned of civil rights through feminism. Both of my parents were lieutenant colonels in the Army, so I grew up with a very strong woman and two very equal parents.

Being part of the gay community was one of the reasons that I ran for the House. Pennsylvania has no LGBT rights laws at all, so a lot needs to be done. Both Republicans and Democrats in the House and the State Senate support such legislations.

Q: Has your being gay hurt you in ways that legislation could have prevented?

Not very often. To my fortune, I live in a city with many laws that protect my rights. In other areas of Pennsylvania, you can get fired from your job or kicked out of your house, and even get bullied just for being gay.

Q: Were you surprised last June, when the speaker of the House, Daryl Metcalfe, did not let you speak on the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act, saying that it would be “an open rebellion against God’s law”?

Yes. I knew that he did not like me personally, and did not have respect for the House and its members, but I was surprised by the reason for which he did not let me speak.

Anyone can believe in anything they want, and have any motivation for their activism, but “God’s law” has no place in the Government and its voting.

Q: How has being elected changed your lifestyle?

I have always been very busy: Before being elected, I was the president of Equality Pennsylvania, and active in five more civil rights organizations. Now I am just as busy, but have a whole team that helps me.

In the little spare time that I have, I carry lectures, to teach the public on subjects such as saving money and public safety.

Q: What are your plans for the elections to the General Assembly next June?

I will run for the same office again. I need several more years to take care of all of the issues in my district (the 182nd House District, Center City).

Q: Do you have any connection with the local Jewish community?

When I worked as a lawyer, each and every one of my bosses was Jewish. They all understood what it meant to stand up and be an advocate for your community, so working as a lawyer had been connecting me with the Jewish community as well as with the lawyer community.

Last October, politicians from Pennsylvania held a diplomatic trip to Israel, but I could not go. A similar trip is planned for next March, and I would like to join it.

Details Sought On Secret Congressional Redistricting Map


— Barbara Grill

State Rep. Babette Josephs, D-Phila., said she is discouraged that House State Government Committee members are being asked to vote next week on Congressional redistricting legislation (H.B. 5) because it fails to list any specific geographic information of how the Congressional districts will be composed and the public has not been given the chance to comment on it.

Josephs is the Democratic chairwoman of the House State Government Committee. Committee members were informed yesterday they would be voting on the bill Monday. She immediately wrote to her Republican counterpart on the committee, state Rep. Darryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, asking for a more transparent process, as well as the complete details.

Josephs wrote to Metcalfe:  

Earlier this year you and Senator McIlhinney held three hearings across the state in which you congratulated yourself for how open, transparent and inclusive Congressional reapportionment would be accomplished in this legislative session. If you were serious about openness, transparency and inclusiveness, wouldn’t it be wise to share the details of the plan including maps well in advance of a voting meeting and to gather public comment from interested parties and community leaders in no less than three public hearings?

Earlier today Metcalfe canceled Monday’s meeting but rescheduled it for Wednesday, Dec. 7. Josephs said she assumes an amendment that provides the details she seeks still will be brought out at the last minute, like most of the legislation brought forward by the House Republican majority this session.

More after the jump.

Josephs said:

The kicks and punches to democracy just keep on coming from Chairman Metcalfe and Republican Leader Mike Turzai. First, the Legislative Reapportionment Commission approves a preposterous preliminary reapportionment plan for state House and Senate districts that has been criticized across the state. Now, they’ll push through a Congressional map that the public will have little to no time to examine or provide input on how it will affect their communities. This is not democracy. It is dictatorship.

Josephs introduced legislation that would require openness and fairness in the redistricting process. Her bill  (H.B. 134) was referred to the House State Government Committee more than nine months ago but Metcalfe has not allowed it to be brought up for discussion, let alone a vote.  

Specifically, Josephs’ bill would:

  • Permit any Pennsylvania resident to submit reapportionment plans for legislative districts, which the commission would be required to consider. The commission would make software and demographic data available for use in developing such plans.
  • Require the commission to hold public hearings to solicit public testimony from as many Commonwealth residents as possible. Five hearings would be held in different geographic regions of the state before the preliminary plan is developed and again before the final plan is voted on.
  • Require the commission to set up a website for the data, the actual maps, hearing and meeting notices and transcripts and other communications.
  • Require the commission to comply with the Sunshine Act and the Right-to-Know Law.

Josephs said,  

My bill gives the public more of a vested interest in how legislative districts are drawn. The actions of the Legislative Reapportionment Commission these past several weeks, the inaction of Mr. Metcalfe on my legislation and this Congressional map shrouded in secrecy make clear the Republican majority is not interested in a transparent and open process. They should be ashamed.

Josephs noted Metcalfe has yet to advance a single Democratic bill, while she, when she was majority chairwoman, advanced 28 Republican bills.