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Politically Speaking is WVXU Senior Political Analyst Howard Wilkinson's column that examines the world of politics and how it shapes the world around us.

Analysis: Are Ohio Republicans finally getting serious about redistricting?

Ohio State Rep. Bob Cupp answers questions from the media, Thursday, July 30, 2020 in Columbus, Ohio.
Farnoush Amiri
Republican co-chair of the commission, House Speaker Bob Cupp, said Tuesday the group will take testimony from interested parties with the goal of producing maps.

Is there, at long last, a glimmer of hope that the majority Republicans on the Ohio Redistricting Commission might actually do something about producing state legislative and congressional districts maps that follow the law?

Too soon to tell.

We've been teased by these Republicans before. And, so far, they've fallen short — not once, not twice, but three times on the Ohio General Assembly and congressional district maps.

But the seven members of the commission — five Republicans and two Democrats — met for about 10 minutes in Columbus at high noon Tuesday and decided to keep talking. There will likely be meetings Wednesday and Thursday and possibly beyond.

The Republican co-chair of the commission, Ohio House Speaker Bob Cupp, said Tuesday they will take testimony from interested parties with the goal of producing maps.


Have the Republicans had their epiphany, their Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment?

Sounds like one Republican member of the commission, Gov. Mike DeWine, has. He told the commission Tuesday he believes they have an obligation to produce maps — not just ignore the Ohio Supreme Court's deadline as they did last week.

"This is, I think, a question of following the rule of law, respect for law," DeWine said.

The newest member of the commission, Democratic State Rep. Allison Russo, said Tuesday that talk of the GOP's hired mapmakers begs the question — will the Democrats' mapmakers be involved in the discussions?

Does all of this happy talk from Cupp and his side of the aisle Tuesday have to do with the order Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor issued last Friday giving the commission members until noon Wednesday to show cause why they shouldn’t be found in contempt of court?

Was that enough to give the Republicans religion on the subject of following the law? Or is it just more street theater by the GOP?

This redistricting saga is a 'scrimmage for the national game'

With ongoing legal battles going on before the Ohio Supreme Court and in federal court over the maps, there is a growing feeling that Ohio needs to put a congressional district map in place and do it fast.

This is not to minimize the ongoing battle over state legislative maps.

The races for Ohio House and Senate seats are important; and there are a whole lot of potential candidates from both parties on pins and needles, waiting to find out in what districts they should be running or if they should bother running at all.

But the fight over the drawing of Ohio's 15 congressional districts is part of a bigger national story — the coming battle this fall for control of the U.S. House at a time when the Democratic majority is not very large and the Democratic president is under water in the polls.

"The state legislative districts are a minor scrimmage compared to what lies ahead with the congressional district map," said former Ohio Supreme Court justice Paul Pfeifer, a Republican who served on the court for 24 years.

"Moving state legislative districts around — that's not likely to change the political landscape in Ohio all that much," Pfeifer said. "Congressional districts — that's a national game. The stakes are very, very high."

As of this month, Democrats hold 222 U.S. House seats, while the Republicans have 211. Two are vacant.

All that is needed for a majority is 218 seats. The GOP is smelling victory in the air, and with good reason.

Each and every competitive House district in the country will matter. And, as of today, Ohio is one of only eight states that does not yet have a congressional district map in place.

How we got here

After the Republican-dominated legislature failed to come up with a new congressional district map, it was left to the Ohio Redistricting Commission to carry the ball, per the Ohio Supreme Court's order in January.

It's hard to see how the outcome will be any different because the two men who are driving the bus on the commission are Cupp and Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman. The other three Republicans on the commission — DeWine, Secretary of State Frank LaRose and State Auditor Keith Faber — just seem to be along for the ride.

But they sounded serious about it in Tuesday's brief meeting.

The first congressional district map submitted by the commission Republicans — a four-year map, because it had no support from the two Democrats on the commission — was ridiculous on the face of it.

Ohio Senate

The Ohio Supreme Court made it clear in both the state legislative district decision and the congressional district decision that the four-member majority of the court takes very seriously the standard of proportionality — that the districts should reflect the 54%-46% split between Republican and Democratic voters over the past decade.

The original map rejected by the Ohio Supreme Court would have had the likely result of 13 of 15 congressional districts going to Republicans. That's 80%. I am no math wizard, but 80% is nowhere near 54%.

The Ohio Supreme Court majority said, in essence, Not even close, fellas. Try again. And get it right.

The Democrats on the commission have already submitted their own map — a map which would likely produce a split of eight Republicans and seven Democrats. That map hits the nail on the head in terms of proportionality — 53.3% Republican seats, 46.7% Democratic seats.

You can't get much closer to the 54-46 mark than that.

The GOP map that was ruled unconstitutional did something crazy to Hamilton County.

Hamilton County, the third most populous county in the state, has been divided between two congressional districts for some time — districts represented by two Republicans, Steve Chabot and Brad Wenstrup.

The map proposed by the Republicans split Hamilton County into three congressional district.

The Republican map kept the ludicrous, narrow land bridge to take in heavily Republican Warren County. It had one purpose and one purpose only — to make it nearly impossible for any Democrat to defeat Chabot. Warren County is Chabot's re-election insurance.

Well, that insurance coverage would expire under the Democratic plan. All of Chabot's district would end up in the increasingly blue Hamilton County, including all of the city of Cincinnati. Advantage, Democrats.

The Democratic map would also right a glaring wrong in the rejected GOP map. The Republicans wanted to take a chunk of north central Hamilton County and jam into the district of Rep. Warren Davidson of Troy, a Trump Republican whose district runs from Butler County to Shelby County in western Ohio.

And guess who lives in that chunk of Hamilton County? About 30,000 Black and mostly Democratic voters in places like Forest Park and Lincoln Heights who would suddenly find their votes overwhelmed by a sea of red in a heavily Republican, mostly white district.

Can you say disenfranchised voters?

Another 12-for-me-3-for-you map from the Republicans is not going to cut it.

The drawing of state legislative district maps is laid out in a constitutional amendment passed by over 70% of the voters in 2015. It expressly forbids the Ohio Supreme Court from drawing state legislative districts itself or hiring someone to do so.

But the constitutional amendment on congressional redistricting, passed by the voters in 2018, does not contain language telling the court it can't do that. And, perhaps, if the commission fails to come up with a plan that meets the court's requirements, it will do just that. It is too early to tell.

So, the next move in this "three-dimensional chess game," as Pfeifer called it, is up to the Ohio Redistricting Commission.

With a March 4 deadline for congressional candidates to file coming up, maybe they will take the job seriously this time around.

Well, I guess there's a first time for everything.

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.