If you switched on the television this morning you probably saw some reporting on the results of the battery of local elections held yesterday. At least in my neck of the media woods, there’s a pretty narrow focus within that – on the Democratic loss of the Kentucky governorship to a Republican.
That story has everything. There’s the glacial pace of party realignment, with the South steadily converting from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican even at the state-level. Entangled with that is the convoluted history of Kentucky itself, the famously neutral state in the Civil War. If you want to say or write something that, instead of being deeply historied, makes this a dramatic reversal there’s something to draw on there as well – as the predictions remarkably reversed at more or less the last minute. Suddenly, Republican Matt Bevin overtook Democrat Jack Conway in what was ultimately revealed to not be a fluke poll but an accurate prediction. That race and its results are rich in narratives and national meaning.
Let’s look a little more broadly though. Here’s some interesting things that happened last night that are going a little under-noticed compared to that one race.
Ohioan Redistricting: don’t hold your breath
Ohio voters roundly supported Issue 1, giving it 71 percent support at the ballot box. The proposition overhauls Ohio’s districting system for its state legislature, which arguably has served as the gerrymandering model for Republicans around the country. In spite of a very narrow preference for Democratic candidates as an entire state, the internal boundaries have been carefully drawn (some argue for more than two decades) to pack Democratic-leaning areas into a few districts, allowing Republicans to be numerically over-represented in the state legislature. Issue 1 is designed to encourage less partisan district maps by forcing the panel that creates the maps to have more members of both major parties and to require more frequent votes to maps passed without support from both parties.
Many aren’t particularly impressed with the new system this sets up, however. Arguably many of the current Democratic representatives have a personal investment in the broken system, since the Democratic “sink” districts are incredibly safe seats for them to hold. Only one of them needs to accept a Republican-biased proposal to make the results “bipartisan” defeating the whole point of the measure. Besides that, even if the Democrats remain firm, the Republicans can arguably retain the existing map or a similarly favorable one with the more regular votes indefinitely. Either way, we’re back to square one with a gerrymandered Ohioan legislature.
Stephen Wolf at DailyKos noted that the fundamental problem here is party involvement. Increasing the diversity of party involvement in planning these maps isn’t really a solution. He pointed instead to Arizona as a model for dismantling a gerrymandered map, saying:
The biggest risk with this proposed commission is that it will destroy any appetite for further redistricting reform among Democrats and reform-minded independent organizations, just as flawed redistricting reform measures have done in other states. At best, it might just induce reformers to include Congress under the same bipartisan process as the legislature, leading to maps that, while not as aggressive as the current Republican gerrymander, would still have a clear rightward lean.
A far more ideal solution is to establish a truly independent redistricting commission free of self-interested political officeholders. Arizona did this very thing, producing a commission reformers regarded highly. After a crucial United States Supreme Court ruling validated establishing redistricting commissions by initiative, there has been a renewed push for similar reforms in other ballot measure states. It’s quite possible that renewed independent reform efforts spurred Republicans’ desire in Ohio to block a more aggressive future reform by agreeing to Issue 1 now.
The next few years will show if Ohioans can capitalize on these changes. Maybe this can be the start of a more systemic reform, but if commentators like Wolf are to be believed, that’s not likely.
Pennsylvania Swept, Republicans Wept
Amid the decline of the Democratic Party in Kentucky, there’s some bright news from the other end of northern Appalachia. Pennsylvania has been swept in an off-year election by Democrats. The bulk of the positions up for election were judicial, which in Pennsylvania have as of late been held by Republicans, and been a key part of the Republican policy control in the left-leaning state. Yesterday, for the first time since 2007, Pennsylvania voters elected a Democratic candidate to the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court (more or less an appellate state court), and likewise changed their state Supreme Court into a majority Democrat body.
While those were statewide elections that indicate the political temperature of Pennsylvania is shifting bluer, the mayoral election in Philadelphia indicates how the already Democratic-leaning portions of the state are moving. The Republican candidate, Melissa Bailey, lost to Democrat James Kenney by a 72 point margin. You read that right – the Democratic candidate got 85 percent of the vote to the Republican’s thirteen.
Others have previously pointed out that Republicans tend to regularly sink resources into fights they can’t win in Pennsylvania, but this indicates how out-of-reach the state has really become for their party. The state as a whole is becoming harder to win in the local, off-year elections that are supposed to be Republicans’ high water mark, and they’re barely a second party in some parts of the state. Pennsylvania may be becoming the Atlantic California.
Houston: The Arc of Justice… can double back
Trigger warning: transmisogyny, heterosexism, cissexism
There’s been some national attention on the election in Houston which changed the city policy on discrimination against LGBT people, but my impression is frankly that it’s being mischaracterized. For instance, here’s how the Texas Tribune explained the vote in one of the most widely circulated pieces on the issue:
Houston voters on Tuesday resoundingly rejected an ordinance that would have established protections from discrimination for gay and transgender residents and several other classes. With 95 percent of votes counted, 61 percent of voters opposed the measure. The embattled ordinance, better known as HERO, would have made it illegal to discriminate against someone based on 15 different “protected characteristics,” including sex, race, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity.
The article, to its credit, does correctly go on to describe the deeply transmisogynistic rhetoric that was successfully used to create a public rejection of the ordinance. It also ultimately notes briefly that the ordinance was already in place following a 2014 vote by city officials, a bit of a different situation than implied to exist in the above description. This wasn’t legal protections and rights for LGBT people (among others) not be extended, it was them being rescinded. Combined with the on-going insult that particularly the rights and recognition of LGBT people is something to be put to a plebiscite, this flies in the face of many triumphalist narratives being pushed currently about LGBT rights.
The nation’s fourth largest city just rolled back the rights of LGBT people, and particularly indicated that transgender women can’t feel safe in public in it. This echoes some of the most painful parts of the now closing fight for marriage equality that many seem to want to forget today. Marriages were nullified. The availability of marriage was revoked. Among other important things obscured in the hazy glow of Obergefell is this: things can move backwards. Rights awarded are rights that can be withdrawn.