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Published: Saturday, 3/24/2012

COMMENTARY

Far-flung new House district highlights need for reform

BY MARILOU JOHANEK
BLADE COLUMNIST

My new representative in the U.S. House lives more than two hours away from me. This could be problematic. Long-distance relationships are tough to sustain.

I have nothing against Urbana Republican Jim Jordan, from the largely rural 4th District in west-central and north-central Ohio. But what does a hard-core conservative from Champaign County have in common with north-coast constituents some 130 miles away?

The district stretches as far southwest as Springfield and as far northeast as Elyria — more than three hours from Rep. Jordan's base. How does the bottom half of Erie County compete for attention with Shelby County and other constituencies across the vast 4th District?

How does Mr. Jordan balance district priorities fairly, adequately, and equally when constituent needs are, literally, all over the map? Something's got to give in access, influence, and accurate representation.

I don't know Mr. Jordan, but it's not for lack of trying. My attempts to contact the 48-year-old politician through his Washington office were unsuccessful.

Perhaps the congressman was busy conquering his own learning curve about the far-flung communities he now represents. Spokesman Meghan Snyder was at a loss to offer details about the new 4th District, other than to refer to the color-coded map, already released, that delineates Ohio's 16 House seats.

The reality of compromised representative government has begun to sink in. Voters find themselves geographically — if not politically — estranged from their new House members.

They worry about losing ground with government leaders they know and who know them. Folks inherently understand that a representative who's not local is not around and is not an effective ally on their behalf.

The bizarre configuration of House district boundaries in Ohio was a rude awakening to some primary voters. But it's easy to tune out subjects such as redistricting until the state redraws your district and you're suddenly marginalized in a carved-up county, wondering where you belong.

Befuddled Ohioans surveyed ballots with names of unfamiliar office-seekers. Newly mapped districts mostly favored Republican candidates who promoted partisan agendas that were not necessarily embraced by all their new voters.

The 4th District, defined by the Web site Wikipedia as "the most Republican district in Ohio," has been represented since 2007 by a man described by the National Journal in 2011 as the most conservative Republican in Congress. Mr. Jordan speaks the Tea Party language of core conservatives from Lima to Mansfield.

On his Web site, Mr. Jordan rails against "ObamaCare" and asserts that "the liberal Obama Administration thinks its political goals trump the religious faith of American citizens." He introduced the Ultrasound Informed Consent Act in January. It would require doctors to perform ultrasounds on, and provide the results to, pregnant women who seek abortions.

The Jordan ideology may play well in points south of Seneca County, but not so much in parts of Erie County and Lorain County. Yet constituents in the far northwest or northeast regions of the 4th District, who live two to three hours from their new representative, are disadvantaged by distance.

In a television interview last fall, Mr. Jordan stressed the importance of getting back to his district and out to its communities.

"When the Founders put together this great experiment in freedom we call America," he said, "they wanted the members of the House of Representatives to be as close to the people as possible."

But without compact and contiguous districts, that's impossible. Without a sea change in the way Ohio draws its districts, the will of the people won't mean much.

The hyperpartisan gerrymandering that divided Ohio after the 2010 Census allowed politicians to pick voters, not the other way around. District lines that arbitrarily split counties, townships, cities, and villages were purely political calculations.

Ohio voters deserve better. A coalition of citizen advocacy groups, led by the League of Women Voters of Ohio, filed petitions with the Ohio attorney general this week to reform state redistricting with a constitutional amendment.

The proposal for a nonpartisan citizen commission that would draw fair political districts has merit.

Read more about it at votersfirstohio.org. The group aims to take "redistricting out of the hands of elected officials, special interests, lobbyists, and political hacks and [put] it back in the hands of Ohio voters."

The sooner citizens, not politicians, fix the way our long-distance districts are drawn, the better.

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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