GOP Redistricting Designed to Force Out a Top Progressive Congressmember

February 7, 2012
Sarah Jaffe

Two progressive champions are facing off for one seat in Congress. What's a voter to do?

As the election season heats up, eyes around the country will be trained on Ohio, one of the biggest swing states in presidential campaigns. Ohio's also got a Senate race worth watching this year, as progressive champion Sherrod Brown faces a challenge for reelection. And the Buckeye State has an energized progressive-labor base following a big victory over S.B. 5, the bill that would have eliminated collective bargaining for public workers.

But in the northern part of the state, the redrawn 9th Congressional district creates another challenge for progressives—and either way this one goes, liberal Democrats lose.

It's a Republican dream, forcing two progressive candidates to fight each other to stay in Congress. That's exactly what's happening as redistricting has thrown Dennis Kucinich, two-time presidential candidate and hero to the anti-war movement, into competition with Marcy Kaptur, who's made news both for a fiery floor speech calling for people under threat of foreclosure to be squatters in their own homes--and for her vocal opposition to abortion, going so far as to sign on with Bart Stupak in vowing to take down health care reform if insurance companies that got federal dollars covered the procedure. 

Kucinich is the representative for the 10th district, and Kaptur has been the member of Congress for the 9th district since 1983--she's currently the longest-serving woman in the House Democratic caucus. 

It's a head-to-head faceoff between two friends, allies and prominent members of theCongressional Progressive Caucus, and though it probably won't reach Hunger Games-levels of gore, the fight is likely to be messy, and may well end one Democrat's career.

On the Issues

Nick Martin, executive director of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party, which endorsed Kucinich, told AlterNet, “Generally, the party feels that both Kaptur and Kucinich are fantastic fighters for progressive causes. The daylight between them on just a handful of issues is so overwhelmed by the unity they have in pushing a progressive agenda.”

And the numbers back him up. According to OpenDemocracy's Head-To-Head Voting Comparison, Kucinich and Kaptur have voted together 90% of the time. Kaptur votes with her party 93% of the time and Kucinich 89% of the time.

Some of the votes they've split on were cap and trade (Kucinich opposed, Kaptur supported), and a bill to allow deepwater oil drilling to resume (Kaptur was in favor.) But there are two issues that not only show a clear difference between the candidates, but also tend to be deeply important to progressive voters.

Kaptur voted against stem cell research, and, as Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for Choice told AlterNet, “She was part of the bloc of legislators who, with the bishops' blessing, were willing to bring down healthcare over abortion.” Kaptur was a signatory of the famous letter that Democrat Bart Stupak sent to Democratic leadership demanding that the bill exclude abortion coverage. (The Hyde Amendment already prevents federal dollars from being spent on abortions, but Stupak, Kaptur and the rest insisted that private insurers getting federal money not be allowed to provide abortion coverage either.)

O'Brien, whose organization polled voters in Kaptur's district in 2009 on abortion and healthcare reform, said, “Kaptur has proved that when it comes to women's health she does not speak to where her constituents are.” The poll showed that both Catholic and non-Catholic voters in her district were twice as likely to feel less favorably toward a congressperson who voted to make it harder to get abortion coverage with their health insurance. (It should be noted that Kaptur did not support any of 2010's particularly pernicious anti-abortion bills, while several other Democrats were cosponsors, and that both she and Kucinich opposed the Republican attempt to defund Planned Parenthood.)

Is this a possible opening for Kucinich? O'Brien noted that while Kucinich used to be anti-choice, he changed his position before his run for the presidency in 2003. “Whether you hate him or not he's certainly a Catholic legislator who's grappled with issues around reproductive healthcare,” O'Brien said. Kucinich has said publicly that talking with women about reproductive choices changed his mind and led him to support their rights. “We're still uncertain if he'll remain consistent, but he's shown willingness,” O'Brien said.

The other issue that separates Kucinich and Kaptur is war. “When it comes to the idea of war and the actual wars that are in progress, that's where they do differ and that's where a lot of Kucinich's [prominent] statements have come from. That's one of the points where voters are going to see the other candidate as presenting some different points on Iraq or Afghanistan, that might be a swaying point,” Eric Sandy, a reporter for Sun Newspapers in the Cleveland area, told AlterNet.

Kucinich is an anti-war stalwart, calling for a cabinet-level Department of Peace and basing his presidential campaigns on his opposition to intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. Kaptur, meanwhile, voted to keep funding the wars without a withdrawal timeline. While she's by no means a hawk and has vocally opposed the Iraq war, she also voted against a speedier withdrawal from Afghanistan.

But being an effective member of Congress isn't all about votes. It's about committee positions, amendments to bills, setting an agenda. Kucinich and Kaptur are on no common committees currently; Kaptur, as mentioned above, serves on the House Appropriations Committee and the House Budget Committee, as well as subcommittees on Defense, Agriculture, and Transportation/Housing and Urban Development. Kucinich serves on theCommittee on Education and the Workforce and on the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and as the ranking member on the subcommittee overseeing the stimulus bill. This certainly places Kaptur in a position to, as her reputation implies, bring home funds for her constituents.

After the economic crisis left millions of Americans facing foreclosure, Kaptur became famous (and was featured in Michael Moore's film Capitalism: A Love Story) for a fiery speech on the floor of the House where she told Americans

“Don't leave your home. Because you know what? When those companies say they have your mortgage, unless you have a lawyer that can put his or her finger on that mortgage, you don't have that mortgage, and you are going to find they can't find the paper up there on Wall Street. So I say to the American people, you be squatters in your own homes. Don't you leave. In Ohio and Michigan and Indiana and Illinois and all these other places our people are being treated like chattel, and this Congress is stymied."

Kucinich, meanwhile, conducted hearings on the foreclosure crisis with his Domestic Policy subcommittee, and pushed for more accountability for banks. Both of them have solid records on economic issues, but Sandy noted that Kaptur's reputation and base of support with blue-collar voters will resonate with the solidly working-class base in the new district—including the parts that neither Kucinich nor Kaptur previously represented.

In an election likely to be decided largely on economic issues, Democrats in Ohio might be in a stronger position than others nationwide—the labor and progressive coalition We Are Ohio got a “Citizen's Veto” of Governor John Kasich's anti-union bill on the ballot in 2011 and then broke records for off-year voter turnout to vote for the measure. (More Ohioans voted against the anti-union measure than had voted to elect Kasich governor the year before.) But that surge will have little meaning for a primary between two Democrats who are both strong on the economy—which makes it hard to tell which way this election will break.

Thomas Suddes, adjunct assistant professor of journalism at Ohio University and a long-time observer of Ohio politics pointed out, too, that one of the biggest hurdles for Kucinich may simply be his own reputation—people who love him tend to love him, and people who dislike him tend to be very vehement in that reaction. “People aren't really neutral about Dennis,” Suddes said.

Fixing the Districts

How did we get into this mess in the first place? 

Redistricting is one of the perks of controlling state government—once every 10 years, congressional districts are redrawn to reflect population changes. As Lois Beckett at ProPublica wrote, “Redistricting is supposed to benefit voters by equalizing districts as the nation's population shifts. But with few strict requirements for how to shape districts — they must have roughly equal populations and not discriminate against minority voters — political parties often can draw political lines largely to their own benefit.”

In Ohio, the new congressional maps passed in September by the Republican-controlled state legislature favor Republicans in 12 of 16 new districts. “This redistricting was one of the worst pieces of gerrymandering we've ever seen,” Martin said. “We're a 50-50 state and they drew a three-to-one advantage for themselves.”

The district now looks like a barbell: Cleveland on one side, Toledo on the other, and a narrow strip of the map connecting the two. The process by which Kaptur and Kucinich were drawn into the same district, though the cities that formed their respective bases are 110 miles apart, is so flagrant and yet so common that it's got a name: “hijacking.”

Emails released by the Ohio Campaign for Responsible Redistricting show partisan concerns and the hand of U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, also an Ohio representative, in the process. “Speaker Boehner's staff was intimately involved in this,” Martin said. “This was the equivalent of electoral assassination, targeting a good progressive to be taken out, and the means by which they did this is with a pen.”

Cuyahoga County is the most densely populated county in Ohio, and Cleveland is the state's second largest city. Dennis Kucinich was Cleveland's mayor before his election to Congress, and his base is considered to be that city's West Side. The Cuyahoga County Democratic Party has endorsed Kucinich for the new district, but an analysis by the Cleveland Plain Dealer found that the new district actually favors Kaptur, at least in sheer numbers. The paper reported that her existing constituents make up 47 percent of the new 9th district, about 50,000 more than those from Kucinich's district. Another 96,000 of them come from Betty Sutton's district, which has been broken up. (Sutton, another Democrat redistricted out of her seat, is now challenging freshman Republican Jim Renacci for the 16th district. AlterNet readers may remember Renacci from our recent story on ultra-wealthy members of Congress.)

Before the district maps were finalized, Kucinich, who knew there was a target on his back, considered moving to Washington State and running for Congress there. It's unclear yet whether this will have hurt him with his base or other Ohioans, but combined with his two failed runs for the presidency, the Plain Dealer noted that some worry his focus isn't on his own district.

Meanwhile, Kaptur's base is in Toledo, a blue-collar city with a storied labor history, and she's been moving quickly to gain support from working-class voters in Lorain, which the Toledo Blade called the “swing county” of the new district. Endorsements from city officials in Lorain highlighted her position on the House Appropriations committee and her history of bringing home dollars to her district.

In addition to the regional issues that may well swing the race, there are two other demographic figures to keep in mind, according to Suddes. Both candidates have been making a play for Latino voters—Kaptur has already gotten the endorsement of local Latino leaders from Lucas County—who make up a sizable portion of the population, particularly in the Lorain area. Suddes also noted that Kucinich's work on issues around the Middle East could help him with Arab-American voters in Cleveland and Toledo as well.

In addition to the two incumbents, there's a third Democrat in the race, Cleveland video company owner Graham Veysey. But it's very likely that the winner of the race will be Kaptur or Kucinich, and that the winner of the Democratic primary will go on to beat whomever the GOP puts up in November (Samuel Wurzelbacher, better known as “Joe the Plumber” of 2008 election fame, is one of the Republican candidates).

Martin expressed concern not only for the way that two Democratic candidates were thrown into a race for their political lives, but also the way the districts have polarized the state. “They're combining two deep-blue cities and the districts that surround them are just going to be deeper red,” he said. “Whomever comes out of the primary will hang on to what is a pretty deep-blue district, but overall that's not good for the state of Ohio.”

No Matter Who Wins, We Lose

It's very likely that whomever takes the primary in the 9th district will retain the seat in Congress, since as I noted above, the district was drawn to be deep blue. But whether it's Kucinich or Kaptur or even Graham Veysey, Ohio Democrats will have lost one of their champions. One or the other city will have lost a legislator who has been deeply involved with their issues for decades. If Kaptur goes, Democrats will have lost their longest-serving female legislator.

This is the lasting gift of Republican control at the state level, the lasting gift of redistricting as a partisan political act. With the stroke of a pen, as Martin said, a good progressive was taken out, and the GOP gets to sit back and eat popcorn as the Democrats fight among themselves.