Anti-gerrymandering group targets Massachusetts

Lawmakers defend current approach to redistricting

JOHN PUDNER HAS practically unimpeachable conservative credentials as the political consultant who recruited David Brat to run for Congress in Virginia five years ago, but he says he has left his partisan ambitions behind to work on giving the whole voting public a greater say in the electoral system, and his next target is Massachusetts.

Through the group Take Back Our Republic, where he is executive director, Pudner said he has worked on diminishing the role of money in politics and on pushing back against partisan gerrymandering of districts.

In Massachusetts, Take Back Our Republic first wants to register people to vote and hear what they think about gerrymandering, the controversial political maneuver that owes its name to former Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry who served from 1810-1812 and approved congressional districts so serpentine in shape that they were likened to a salamander.

“We’re going to probably hit the streets sometime in the next few months doing petitions and also talking to people about gerrymandering reform,” Pudner said during a recent visit to Massachusetts. “We’re not for either side. We’re against gerrymandering because it takes voters away from their electeds, not because it gives you two more Republicans in Massachusetts or two more Democrats in Michigan or whatever the case is.”

The redrawing of congressional and state legislative districts occurs every decade after the decennial nationwide census. There has been recent controversy and legal action over partisan gerrymandering in states such as Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina, Florida, and Maryland that has tended to strongly favor Republicans. There are other questions of representation swirling around the Trump administration’s plan for the US Census to ask residents about their citizenship status, which many fear will depress immigrants’ participation in the counting and shift power toward Republicans.

The US Supreme Court has heard arguments this session in gerrymandering cases from North Carolina and Maryland, where the map benefitted Democrats, and the court also heard a challenge to the Census’s citizenship question. Going back centuries, ballot access has been an animating force for political movements, including the civil rights movement and the suffragettes.

Massachusetts, where the Democrat-controlled state Legislature handles redistricting, has a checkered history of drawing maps, but lawmakers were roundly praised for the redistricting completed in 2011 and there has not been much of a push in recent years to hand power over to an independent commission, which is an approach generally favored by Take Back Our Republic.

“I don’t see a need for a commission. We haven’t been challenged. We weren’t challenged last time, and I think we have a good process,” said House Majority Leader Ron Mariano.

“I think we’ve done pretty well here in Massachusetts in the past, and we intend to have a very lawful and participatory process in the Legislature here in the next session,” said Senate President Pro Tem William Brownsberger, who is also chairman of the Senate Redistricting Committee.

Even Rep. Brad Jones, the leader of the vastly outnumbered House Republicans, said he favors creating an independent redistricting commission.  “I think it’s a good idea, but I don’t think it’s an idea that’s going to get embraced in Massachusetts,” Jones said. “That being said, I don’t think the last redistricting raised any legal challenges.”

Pudner said one reason he was interested in Massachusetts was that some districts “look funny,” though one reason for that is the legally justified goal of creating a district where racial minorities outnumber whites. In that district, which covers much of Boston, Ayanna Pressley defeated incumbent and fellow Democrat Michael Capuano last September on her way to becoming the first black woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts.

One other reason for focusing on the Bay State is because Pudner has found a receptive audience.

“We’re just finding people turn out here. They’re very civically involved here. Some states it would just take too much work to fire them up,” Pudner said.

Before zeroing in on Massachusetts, Take Back Our Republic worked to establish non-partisan redistricting commissions in Ohio and Michigan, where the district boundaries have favored Republicans, Pudner said.

“We’ve done two states where Republicans were running the show and we fought for redistricting reform, and now we’re doing it here. I didn’t want to do Massachusetts first and make it look like we were only doing this to hurt Democrats. We just want the voters to be better represented,” Pudner said.

Last summer, Pudner wrote an op-ed in the Detroit Free Press, touting his Republican credentials and excoriating Michigan’s Republican establishment for standing in the way of redistricting reform.

“They want to preserve the status quo where the party in power stacks the deck against their political opposition by drawing rigged maps. That’s not what most voters, even most Republican voters, want,” Pudner wrote, saying gerrymandering reform is a way to “drain the swamp.”

Pudner also touted a poll commissioned by his group showing that Michigan Republicans favor redistricting reform. Several months later in November Michigan voters passed a ballot question putting redistricting in the hands of a commission where unenrolled voters will hold a plurality and the two parties will be evenly represented, according to the Detroit Free Press.

While his group may cut against the grain of a Republican establishment that has sought to shore up its power base through legislative maps in the South and Midwest, Pudner said Republicans writ large have problems with gerrymandering and the dark money funding political groups.

“Nationally we’re bucking the Republican trend a bit,” Pudner said. “The rank and file don’t like overt gerrymandering. They don’t like some of this dark money in the background…. Dark money, a lot of Republicans thought, ‘Well, it will always be in our advantage. We have more of it.’ Well this last midterm they didn’t. There was actually more dark money on the left.”

Pudner, whose organization is now based in Auburn, Alabama, has taken on the Republican establishment before. Brat’s 2014 Republican primary victory over Eric Cantor, then the US House majority leader, reconfigured the power base in Congress, and according to many political watchers, torpedoed efforts for bipartisan immigration reform.

“I recruited Brat to actually run for that race, went to his house, convinced him and his wife he could win,” said Pudner, who earned notoriety through the upset win. Last November, Abigail Spanberger, a Democrat and former CIA operative, unseated Brat.

In Massachusetts, Pudner said, Take Back Our Republic will spend a few hundred thousand dollars on an initial door-knocking campaign to talk to people and register voters. Where it goes from there will depend in part on the response, but Pudner thinks using a computer program to draw an initial map would be a positive step, and he is open to taking a proposal directly to the ballot – but not before 2022, which would be after the next redistricting process is over.

Pam Wilmot, the executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, said she hasn’t spoken to Take Back Our Republic, but the state’s constitution would make it difficult to achieve any reforms without the cooperation of the Legislature.

“I do agree the non-partisan redistricting commission is the gold standard,” said Wilmot, whose organization has pushed for that sort of process in Massachusetts.

State lawmakers have the responsibility and power to redraw the legislative districts, and vesting that authority in an independent commission would require a constitutional amendment, a process that would involve the Legislature before a proposal could even reach voters. “No one gives up power without a fight,” Wilmot said.

The high marks for the last redistricting could sap momentum for future reform, but that doesn’t guarantee that the next redistricting will be as worry-free as it was in 2011. After the round of redistricting that followed the 2000 census, Tom Finneran, who oversaw part of that process as the speaker of the House, pled guilty to obstruction of justice in connection with a lawsuit over the district maps.

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Andy Metzger

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

Wilmot said her group will push for transparency, public involvement, reasonable criteria for making the maps, a public comment period, and an ability for people to submit maps of their own.