Will Bob Brady’s congressional district disappear?

Candidates thinking they'll run for Bob Brady's open congressional seat may find redistricting wipes it away, forcing them to run against one of two Philly incumbents.

Listen 2:45
Pennsylvania's 1st, 2nd and 13th Congressional Districts.

Pennsylvania's 1st, 2nd and 13th Congressional Districts. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

New candidates are popping up like mushrooms to run for Philadelphia U.S. Rep. Bob Brady’s seat now that the 10-term congressman has decided he won’t seek re-election.

“The election to replace Bob Brady is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for somebody,” said Democratic strategist Mark Nevins. “It’s a free-for-all.”

But these fresh-faced hopefuls may find the seat they seek vanishing before their eyes.

Why? The state Supreme Court has found Pennsylvania’s districts to be gerrymandered, and it has ordered new maps drawn, right away — maps that form compact districts without splitting counties and towns unless absolutely necessary.

Right now, Philadelphia has three congressional districts, each with a sizeable suburban area grafted onto each one. In other words, those district all split counties when it really isn’t necessary.

The city’s population of 1.55 million is a nearly perfect fit for two complete districts, with about 137,000 people left over to assign to a suburban district.

Alan Butkovitz, a Democratic ward leader and former city controller said the fix is pretty obvious.

“The logic of the state Supreme Court order is that Philadelphia be turned into two congressional districts,” he said in an interview.

Brady is retiring from Congress, but the other two Philadelphia representatives — Brendan Boyle and Dwight Evans — are not.

Among the declared and potential candidates for Brady’s seat are former Philadelphia Deputy Mayor Nina Ahmad; former Wells Fargo executive Michele Lawrence; former Morgan Stanley manager Lindy Li; former Traffic Court Judge Willie Singletary; Philadelphia Deputy Mayor Rich Lazer; the Rev. Kevin Johnson; and state Rep. Joanna McClinton.

I asked Evans about all those new candidates planning to run for Brady’s seat. He said they should begin with one big question.

“I think you have to first look at, what district are you running in?” he said. “You know, right now, I’m not even clear what district I’m running in.”

Boyle told me he’s waiting to find out the shape of his district. He also said he sees how the court’s order could yield a two-district city.

“If you try to balance the need for compactness with as few county splits as possible, then a lot of the configurations end up having two Philadelphia, or heavily majority Philadelphia seats,” he said.

Brady’s departure makes it easier to move the city from three districts to two, since mapmakers wouldn’t have to make incumbents run against each other.

It would be easy to divide the city on a north-south axis, leaving an Evans district on the western side and a Boyle district on the east.

That would mean most of those Philadelphians who want to run for Congress would have to beat an incumbent after all to get to Washington.

Brady’s district would pretty much disappear.

Delaware County’s population is about 149,000 short of the size of a full congressional district, which means a Delaware County district would be a logical place to put the “extra” voters that wouldn’t fit into two new Philadelphia seats.

They would likely be citizens of neighborhoods adjacent to Delaware County, such as Southwest Philadelphia.

I asked two of the new candidates, Ahmad and Johnson, if they were concerned about being forced to run in a completely new district against an incumbent congressman.

Both said it wouldn’t affect their plans, because they have the right background and message, regardless of the district lines.

That’s to be expected, but it has to be a different calculation for them going up against veteran elected officials with money, name recognition, and political allies.

One thing could change all of this and give the newcomers a chance at an open seat.

Republicans have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to halt the redistricting process. If the court does that, candidates can run for Brady’s old seat, for at least one term.

The Supreme Court is expected to act next week.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal