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“Our districts are a mess:” ICRC hearing focuses on NE Indiana

Even in a Saturday afternoon Zoom meeting, the issue of how to redraw Indiana’s congressional and General Assembly districts drew a crowd. At least 80 people joined the videoconference March 13.

About a dozen people, in addition to the public hearing’s organizers, spoke that day. The consensus: There are problems with state legislative districts that redistricting could improve.

“State Senate districts are terrible. I think they really deprive persons of color from having a state senate representative. We have three State Senate seats in Fort Wayne, and they split the south part of Fort Wayne, which is a heavily concentrated area of persons of color. It’s really hard to see how that is constitutional,” said Jorge Fernandez, a Democrat who ran, unsuccessfully, for the State House District 50 seat in 2016, 2018 and 2020.

The March 13 virtual public hearing for the state’s 3rd Congressional District is part of a statewide series convened by the Indiana Citizens Redistricting Commission. As Julia Vaughn, policy director of Common Cause Indiana, explained during the public hearing, the commission intends to draw a nonpartisan map of new districts, based on 2020 Census findings. That map will become an alternative presented when the Republican-controlled General Assembly takes on the job of drawing new legislative districts later this year.

The shapes of those new districts for Congress and the Statehouse will influence who holds power in government for a decade.

During the hearing, several speakers pointed out districts that they say are examples of “picking” — in this case, that means reaching into urban Fort Wayne with a peninsula jutting out of a predominantly rural district. The effect, they say, is isolating a safely small minority of Democratic-leaning precincts inside a strongly Republican district. Today’s maps for legislative districts were drawn 10 years ago, after the 2010 Census, by a Republican-controlled General Assembly.

“Our districts are a mess. We don’t have representational democracy,” said Kathryn Zoucha, a Fort Wayne teacher. “Fort Wayne has a Democratic mayor, and has had a Democratic mayor for years. (Democrats have been mayor since 2000.) We have one Democrat who is a state representative, and all the others are Republicans.

“I live by Lakeside Park, and the district I ran for ran all the way to Ohio,” she said. That district, Senate District 85, is held by Republican Liz Brown, who defeated Zoucha in 2018. “I can walk to downtown Fort Wayne, but it was mostly a rural district,” Zoucha said.

Fernandez cited the district he’s campaigned to represent, House District 50, as another example of sequestering a Democratic-leaning area inside a strongly Republican district. “I definitely think it does not make sense to put the Fort Wayne part of the district and heavily Latino areas in the north part of that district 50 and break it off and put it with Huntington County,” he said.

But there are limits to how much redistricting can change election outcomes. The evidence from the polls is conclusive: Northeast Indiana is consistently Republican. Fernandez looks back almost 30 years, to the campaign of U.S. Rep. Jill Long in 1992. “She won Allen County,” which includes the city of Fort Wayne, he said. Allen County leans most Democratic of any county in the 3rd District. “If you don’t win Allen County, it’s unlikely you’ll win the congressional seat,” he said. Jill Long Thompson, who represented northeast Indiana in Congress from 1989-1995, was the last Democrat the region sent to Congress.

John Hoffman, who does business throughout 16 counties in northeast Indiana, agreed that the area is strongly Republican.

“There’s no question that Northeast Indiana is a heavily dominated Republican area. … If you’re going to elect an official in NE Indiana, it all happens in a Republican primary. There are no competitive general-election races because of this,” he said. Naturally, there are exceptions, as in Fort Wayne, for example. But for the good of the state, one goal of redistricting should be to create more competitive districts, he said.

“There’s no reason to run for office on the Democratic side if there is absolutely no chance to win. … It’s critical for democracy to create more competitive districts,” Hoffman said. — Bob Caylor

Learn more: Fort Wayne Journal Gazette: Setting boundaries: Citizens’ voices can help to ensure fair redistricting