By Pete Johnson
In 1812 the then governor of Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry signed into law legislation that revised voting districts in the state senate. In his home county, Essex County, one senate district was drawn in such a way that when placed on a map resembled a salamander. As the story goes, a local artist, Gilbert Stuart noticed the unusual shape on a map and decorated it the outline of the district with a head, wings and claw and said to the editor “That will do for a salamander!” “Gerrymander came the reply!” The new term caught on instantly and hence became a verb. Incidentally, Governor Gerry’s actions were so offensive that many believe that it played a role in his being defeated in his bid for reelection.
Little did he know what a ruckus he had stirred up!
On numerous occasions the Supreme Court has been faced with the issue of purposefully drawing political lines to benefit one political party or the other.
The “Central problem,” as Justice Scalia put it in Vieth v. Jubelirer, is how to set a standard that properly measures “when political gerrymandering has gone too far” given that “the Constitution clearly contemplates districting by political entities, and unsurprisingly that turns out to be root-and-branch a matter of politics.”
The unintended con-sequence, however, is the creation of a hyperpolarized political environment that seems to bring out the worst in people. Congressional and municipal districts are drawn to insure that one political party or another will represent the people of that district and the drawing of the lines more times than not grants the victor guaranteed reelection. Which means that he or she really doesn’t have to pay any attention to the voices of those in the minority. As Justice Stevens said in Vieth v. Jubelirer, “The Equal Protection Clause implements a duty to govern impartially that requires, at the very least, that every decision by the sovereign serve some nonpartisan public purpose.”
Many believe that Gerry-mandering is the vehicle that has taken politics to an all time low!
Several years ago I was asked to speak at the Ackerman Rotary Club and the former governor and then Judge J.P. Coleman was present. By that time Judge Coleman was a Senior Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. And after I spoke, Judge Coleman asked if I would stop by his chamber before I left town he had something he wanted to tell me.
And what he told me is something all our candidates and politicians could learn from today!
He said, “You know, your uncle (Paul B. Johnson, Jr.) and I ran two of the most mean spirited, hard fought, campaigns that have ever been run in Mississippi.”
He then said, “Shortly after the campaign was over Paul called me on the phone and asked if he could come see me. He said, “He drove to Ackerman by himself and it was only the two of us together for the first time. Paul said, J.P. we have fought it out in two rough and tumble campaigns and in spite of all the things I said about you, I believe that you were really a very good governor! I too want to be a good governor, will you tell me how and help me?”
Judge Coleman said that during the next four years they frequently discussed challenges facing our state and how best to meet them. They worked together to help make our state a better place for all of us to live!
The toxic environment that we find ourselves in now only divides us more rather than bring us together and Gerrymandering has only made it worse!
Healthy, respectful debate is the bedrock of our democracy but if the scales are tipped in favor of one side or the other all of that doesn’t matter. Compromise and civility are out the window. DBJ
Pete Johnson of Clarksdale is a former State of Mississippi Auditor and he was the first chairman of the Delta Regional Authority.