Gerrymandering Builds Unlikely Allies

The arguments against the gerrymandering of districts are strong. It subverts democracy. It takes away the one person, one vote rule. But what anti-gerrymandering proponents are also concerned about is representation for communities of interest.

So what are communities of interest and why should this matter?
A prime example happened on the Milwaukee County Board prior to the maps being drawn for the election to be held in 2004. There were 25 seats on the County Board at that time, and the ethnic makeup of the County meant that one should reasonably expect that there would be 2 seats representative of hispanic neighborhoods. Well it didn’t turn out that way.

It turns out that voter turnout in traditionally latino communities is very low. So low in fact, that the near south side district had only about 3,000 voters despite the fact that the Supervisory district represented approximately 37,500 people. Suburban districts could reasonably expect to have between 9,000 and 12,000 voters — but those districts were primarily caucasian.

The near south side seat that was mostly populated by ethnically latino residents was represented at that time by County Supervisor T. Anthony Zielinski. Zielinski lived on the edge of the district in the Bay View neighborhood of Milwaukee. Bay View is primarily ethnically caucasian.

As a side note, Zielinski promoted himself as the hardest campaigner on the board at the time, saying he knocked on all the doors (voters doors) in his district twice while most Supervisors didn’t even make it through their district once. Insiders chuckled at this because they knew that Zielinski’s low voter turnout district with close knit houses meant that he had to do half of the amount of work other candidates did while proclaiming he did twice what others did, but you can’t fault Zielinski for his firm grasp of political marketing.

So what did this all mean? Well, if people voted on ethnic lines, and all ethnicities voted at equal percentages, the district would have a hispanic Supervisor in that seat.

But it never worked out that way.

It turns out that you have to really pack a district with hispanic voters to maximize the chances of a hispanic getting elected.

By not packing the district, and drawing the map close to a simple square, including wards only near the center of a radius, it would be unlikely that a hispanic would ever be elected. If you fast forward to today, that would make sense if all of the white people in the district were driven to fear brown people as Presidential candidate Donald Trump has capitalized on. Trump’s anti-immigrant remarks on the campaign trail, including his allusion that Mexican immigrants are rapists, have not been kindly received by hispanics.

But back to Zielinski’s district…

To ensure a hispanic representative, white areas were carved out the district with the exception of Zielinski’s neighborhood since he quietly told his colleagues he would vote no on any redistricting map proposal that cut him out, all the while that he was publicly professing support for a hispanic district.

Now here’s where it gets tricky. Nobody knew Zielinski’s district better than Zielinski. With a targeted voting list, he could walk an entire block in his district and in some areas only knock on the doors of 2 houses because that’s where the voters were. And what did these voters look like? Even in areas that were majority hispanic, the white people were the ones who were the voters. They didn’t hold it against Zielinski that he was white. All he needed to do was to get the white voters fired up and pull over some hispanic voters, and Zielinski could be assured victory.

When he saw this push for a higher and higher percentage of the district to be hispanic, he did what many politicians do — he ran for a different seat with district borders that his house was in. He ran for a State Assembly seat and lost. Then he ran for a City Alderman seat in the Bay View Neighborhood and he won. He holds that seat today. The largely hispanic areas are now represented on the County Board by a Latina — Peggy Romo West.

So did it help the district to have a hispanic? That’s an answer for the voters to decide. Zielinski, despite all of his critics, was effective at getting what his district needed during budget negotiations and he had the reputation for grabbing the media spotlight. Is his successor effective? Well that’s also a question for the voters.

But back to the gerrymandering issue — communities of interest, and in this case ethnic minorities and their advocates, often team up with people who are diametrically opposed to their policy concerns. The advocates are then reasonably certain that they can have someone who looks like themselves, to be on the legislative body.

By packing large percentages of ethnic minorities into these districts, diversity is sacrificed in other adjacent districts. By protecting a class of people, outlying districts have no need to elect a representative who will care at all about that ethnic minority since ethnic minorities are not their voters — even if they live geographically close to the group.

Under this model, people who would otherwise be considered to be common sense moderates are criticized by partisans and being too middle of the road. In a partisan environment appealing to these interests can be caustic and have devastating effects on communities who previously thought they had common interests. This creates additional polarization of those in government and the polarized views of those elected to those districts is what the media focuses on.



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