Reclaiming Our Democracy: Rally to End Gerrymandering!

Fair Districts PA supporters and allies packed the capitol rotunda on April 16 to show strong public support for an independent redistricting commission.

At the State Museum

Despite high wind, heavy rain and flood-warnings across the state, hundreds converged throughout the morning in the Pennsylvania State Museum to gather materials and attend sessions in the museum auditorium.

Highlights included Committee of Seventy’s Draw the Lines project and a moving statement from Tony Crocomo, who pioneered the FDPA speakers bureau. He spoke of his service in Vietnam and his belief that those who fought and died in combat for America did not do so to make sure politicians could draw “safe” districts to ensure their re-election.

“As a 19-year-old combat infantryman in Vietnam in 1969, I saw friends die for America. I cannot tell you what each of those men believed they were fighting for, but I can tell you this—not one of our nation’s dead in Vietnam, Korea, World War II, World War I, or in Afghanistan, Iraq, the War on Terror—not one of our men or women in uniform has ever died to make legislative districts safe for a political party or politician.

The actions this week by Rep Metcalfe and his 14 compliant accomplices on the committee he chairs dishonors the memory and defiles the sacrifice of all who have given their lives for our country.

We cannot let them get away with this. Anger is fine, action is finer. Call, write, visit your legislators. Demand the democracy Americans have died to preserve.”

Representative Eric Roe, the Republican prime sponsor of House Bill 722, made clear the need for bipartisan support of reform and spoke sharply against the gut-and-replace maneuver that would place even more power in the hands of partisan politicians and create an even greater opportunity for future gerrymandering. He got standing ovations when introduced as one of the heroes of this movement, and again when he stood to leave.

At the Capitol

Ralliers spent time visiting legislators and staff, sitting in on the House and Senate in session, and touring the capitol. By 2:15 PM, the rotunda and balconies were already filling, with signs visible along every railing and chants echoing down the halls: “I want my vote to count! I want my vote to count!”

Just before the official start of the rally, Blair County organizer Steve Efelt led a rendition of the Battle Hymn of the Fair Districts Republic, with all joining in to sing:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of true democracy

When the legislature only works to serve the People’s needs 

And reps are free to work and fight for their community

For a more perfect union.

Supporters waiting. Photo: Tim Brixius
Supporters waiting. Photo: Tim Brixius

The Rally!

At 2:30, FDPA Chair Carol Kuniholm greeted the crowd with a reminder that our constitution makes clear:

THE PEOPLE have AT ALL TIMES an inalienable and indefeasible right to alter, reform or abolish their government in such manner as they may think proper. That right has been denied us here - in these halls - again and again and again.

She went on to introduce the two prime sponsors of the original HB 722:

When this story is told, it is a story that will have heroes, and it is a story that will have villains. And some of our legislators are carving out space for themselves as the villains of this story as Representative Metcalfe did last week, and some of them are carving out space for themselves as courageous heroes, and two of them are here with us right now: Representatives Steve Samuelson and Eric Roe.

Rep. Samuelson and Rep. Roe. Photo: Sean Leber
Rep. Samuelson and Rep. Roe. Photo: Sean Leber

Both legislators spoke, followed by League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania President Susan Carty, who reminded our legislators of their oath of office and denounced tactics that diminish the value of our vote. Committee of Seventy Executive Director David Thornburgh reminded the crowd that his organization has been working for fair elections for over a century and that his father, Republican Governor Dick Thornburgh, spoke out against gerrymandering as early as the 1980s.

Tim Stevens of the Black Political Empowerment Project spoke of their effort to encourage ALL people to vote in each and every election, yet lamented that  gerrymandering lessens the value of those votes, discouraging the civic engagement his group works so hard to promote.

Jamie Mogil, FDPA resolutions coordinator, shared our latest resolution statistics and introduced Jim Hertzler, vice-chair of the Cumberland County Board of Commissioners, the first to pass, by unanimous vote, a resolution in support of an independent citizens redistricting commission.

Clinton County Commissioner Jeff Snyder also addressed the ralliers:

I have never, in my life, seen democracy at work like it is here today, and I could not be prouder to be a part of it - and I’m a Republican. And I could not be prouder of the fact that little rural Clinton County got this right by having all municipalities sign a resolution in support of Fair Districts.

Snyder commended Rose Reeder for her work in promoting these resolutions, then Commissioner Paul Conklin read the Clinton County resolution, followed by Republican Chair Pete Schmeltz who lamented that legislators forget they are elected to serve the people. He said a chief responsibility of county commissioners is to ensure fair elections and affirmed that fair district lines are an essential part of fair elections. He called the assembled crowd “Awesome,” and urged “Keep it going. Do not relent!”

We voted for the resolution because we knew - in our heart - it was the right thing to do. We were challenged at times by our Republican counterparts who were suspicious of this movement. This movement is what America is all about. This movement is what fairness is about, what our constitution is about. These people and these halls work for us!

Rallying in the Rain. Photo: Hugh Roberts
Rallying in the Rain. Photo: Hugh Roberts

Outside in the Rain

After almost an hour of speeches and chants, the crowd moved out to the capitol steps, where more speakers were waiting in the light, cold rain.

The rally ended with a brief standoff between Pennsylvania Patriot and Gerry the Gerrymander, two characters who roamed the building throughout the day, visiting legislators to distribute pins saying “Guardians of the State Constitution”. Patriot ended with a plea:

Friends and citizens, keep up your hearts. Continue in your just efforts.

You hold in your hands the one weapon that can defeat that vile creature.

Through the transparency and equity of an independent citizens commission you can at long last rid us of the corrupt and partisan dealings that our old system engenders.

The motto of this state is Virtue! Liberty! Independence! I beg you legislators:

Call upon your Virtue, Exercise your Liberty and give us an Independent Commission!

As the energized, determined crowd dispersed toward buses, carpools and train in the icy drizzle, they chanted: “The people have the right / to alter and reform” and “What do we want? Fair Districts! / When do we want them? NOW!”