Redrawn Seventh District: culturally diverse but one thing in common: Head-scratching

Posted: January 09, 2012

WOODCHOPPERTOWN, Pa. - Up here in the wooded hills of Berks County, boys are more likely to go hunting after school than play street hockey, as they might do in Essington or Secane.

If they take in a ball game, it's more likely the Reading Phillies than the Philadelphia Phillies.

And when they eat a big sandwich, they call it a sub, not a hoagie. They make it on a doughy soft roll, not an Italian hard roll.

Culturally, rural Woodchoppertown is a world apart from the dense, twin-house neighborhoods of eastern Delaware County down by Philadelphia International Airport.

But people in those areas - along with Amish farmers in Lancaster County, mushroom workers in lower Chester County, and affluent Main Liners in Radnor - will soon have something in common.

Thanks to a dramatic redrawing of the electoral map, they'll all be pushed into the same congressional district.

Starting after the November election, they'll be in the Seventh District, traditionally based in Delaware County but including other areas of Philadelphia's suburbs. It is now represented by Republican Patrick Meehan, a former Delco district attorney.

This all makes little sense to some residents at opposite poles of the district, the boundaries of which dart up and down, in and out.

"I think it's too chopped up," said Leon Conrad, a Woodchoppertown retiree who spent a fascinated few minutes last week looking at the congressional map atop the trunk of a car.

Conrad and a friend had stopped to chat with a roving reporter as they took their daily three-mile walk. Just up the road was the Boyertown Rod & Gun Club. Bales of hay, looking like toilet paper rolls in white plastic wrapping, lay in a field. Wood smoke rose from house chimneys.

"The sticks," Conrad called it. He said he could recall a moonshine still in the woods.

"We're going to have some different problems than these Amish down here or these city slickers over here," he said, pointing to spots on the map. "Why can't they just draw a block?"

That is a question many people asked.

"Southern Delco - that's a whole different mind-set," said Christine Heatwole, a nurse from Wagontown in Chester County who ate lunch with friends Wednesday at Stoltzfus Meats in Intercourse, near Lancaster, on the district's western end.

"It's rural life vs. suburban, almost urban life," she said. "I don't think people in southern Delaware County are going to be voting on whether the Amish should have red [reflectors] on the back of their buggies."

Tracy Gehman of Honey Brook said of Meehan: "So we're getting a city boy coming to the country? He's going to have to get educated on a lot of stuff around here."

The redrawing was constitutionally required after the 2010 census to reflect population shifts. Districts nationwide must have about the same population - 711,000, up from 647,000 after the 2000 census.

Gerrymandering is the term political scientists use to describe the age-old process of mapping districts to favor one candidate or party.

Republicans, who control the state legislature, worked to draw lines of 18 new districts statewide to bolster their incumbents in coming elections. In some cases, Democrats were willing to give ground to strengthen their own incumbents.

U.S. Rep. Robert Brady, Philadelphia Democratic chairman, said his party would have done the same had it been in the majority.

In the Philadelphia region, Meehan's district is the most gerrymandered. What had been a fairly compact area - sort of a snowman, with a small blob atop a big blob - now looks like an inkblot on a Rorschach psychological evaluation test. (A blue crab?)

Fifty-five percent of the population of the new district is still in Delco, according to a Democratic Party analysis. Twenty-one percent is in Montgomery County and 13 percent in Chester County.

The GOP helped Meehan by giving him some Republican areas of Lancaster and Berks Counties, while dumping some Delco Democrats into Brady's First District.

The new district will still be a battleground, but the odds tilt just a bit toward Meehan.

Redistricting has long been a troublesome issue in Pennsylvania - and New Jersey - because of slow growth relative to other states.

Nationwide, there are 435 seats. Pennsylvania and New Jersey will each lose one, while Texas, Florida, and other booming states will gain.

Since 1920, no state has lost more seats than Pennsylvania, which once had 36 - twice as many as after November.

The new Seventh District's southeastern corner is in Essington, by the noisy runways of Philadelphia International.

The northeastern portion goes up to Skippack and to West Point, where Merck has its biological research and vaccines plant.

The southwestern point is on the Maryland border in one of America's largest mushroom-growing regions.

The western boundary is near Bird-in-Hand, a few miles from Lancaster.

In the northwest is Woodchoppertown.

Google Maps says a drive around this circuit would cover 209 miles and take four hours and 38 minutes.

Meehan's current district is overwhelmingly suburban or small-town urban. North-south, it runs from Collegeville to Marcus Hook. West-east, it runs from West Chester to the 69th Street area of Upper Darby.

Google Maps says a circle route would cover 86 miles and take two hours and 15 minutes.

Kristine Kinsolving, manager of Pazzo Rosso deli in Essington, also wonders "how one guy is going to represent so many different interests."

People across the district surely have issues in common - the economy, taxes, Social Security, Medicare.

But Kinsolving worries about a proposal to expand the airport. The noise is bad enough. She is concerned an expansion would do away with her daughter's elementary school.

Will the people in Amish country care?

"Some of these places I have never even heard of," she said, looking at the map. "I wouldn't know where they were or how to get there."


Contact staff writer Tom Infield at 610-313-8205 or tinfield@phillynews.com.

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