By Colby Itkowitz,
Megan Jelinger for The Washington Post
CINCINNATI — Michael Dantley, a bishop for 47 years at his church north of downtown, knows that no matter how many Black voters he mobilizes to the polls, it has been preordained that a White conservative who doesn’t share their values will represent them in Congress.
Here in Cincinnati, where Black residents make up almost half of the population, state Republican officials drew a congressional map 10 years ago that sliced through the city, dividing urban neighborhoods into districts dominated by further flung, predominantly White areas.
A constitutional amendment approved by 75 percent of Ohio voters in 2018 was supposed to end that partisan gerrymandering, requiring — among other changes — that cities like Cincinnati be left whole.
So when Republican state lawmakers released a map this week, they split Black voters another way: keeping all of Cincinnati together but combining it with distant, conservative White areas, and divvying up the remaining and diverse parts of Hamilton County between two other seats. The result: three districts in which Black Democratic voters are offset by White Republicans. Only one will probably be competitive.
The map, voting rights advocates say, violates the state constitution, which forbids drawing districts that favor or disfavor a political party. Legal complaints are expected to focus on Hamilton County being “cracked” — the description used by advocates for a deliberate maneuver to dilute the power of minority communities by breaking them up among multiple districts.
“By splitting the Black population in Hamilton County, this map does significant harm to minority communities. This is not what the people wanted. They asked for fair representation, not racially gerrymandered districts,” said state Sen. Cecil Thomas, a Black Democrat who represents Cincinnati.
Republicans counter that they are operating within the law as they seek to maximize the seats in GOP hands. State senate President Matt Huffman said Tuesday that Republicans “did not consider” race when drawing the map.
“I understand Senator Thomas’s passion on this issue, but he’s wrong that we simply tried to draw … lines having to do with race,” he said.
Democrats and advocates say the new lines are one of the many ways that Republicans Ohio and elsewhere have sought to diminish the strength of Democrats, particularly those who are Black and Hispanic. In the last decade the GOP-led Ohio legislature and Republican secretaries of state have limited ballot drop boxes, scaled back early voting and purged voter rolls — moves aimed at Democratic voters.
Republican legislators have blown past deadlines for proposing a congressional map, operating in secret to draw the lines. The map they eventually passed this week — which now goes to Gov. Mike DeWine (R) for his signature — gives them an overwhelming majority of the House seats, ignoring the amendment’s requirement that lines be drawn to reflect the electoral makeup of the state.
Fanning the perception by Democrats of a rigged system is that one of the state Supreme Court justices who will hear the legal battles over the new district lines is DeWine’s son. He has refused to recuse himself despite his father’s intimate role. At the same time, state Republicans have demanded that a Democratic justice recuse herself because plaintiffs in lawsuits against the state’s maps supported her candidacy.
“This isn’t about legitimate outcomes, this isn’t about serving democracy, this is about power and the Republicans have a multipronged approach to maintaining it,” said David Niven, a political science professor at the University of Cincinnati who is allied with the voting rights advocates.
One crisp October morning, Dantley sat in the back office of Christ Emmanuel Christian Fellowship in the historically Black neighborhood of Walnut Hills, where out-of-town developers are buying up houses and converting them into condos. A boutique indoor plant shop selling $30 ethically-sourced candles has moved in among boarded up, deteriorating buildings.
Dantley has lived here all his life. He raised his family here, and now his daughter is raising her family here. Developers want him to sell — the church property takes up one side of an entire city block. If they razed the buildings and constructed high-rises, the rooftops would have sweeping views of the downtown skyline.
But he and the church have been entwined in the fabric of this community for two generations. He sees himself not only as a spiritual leader, but as a civic one, which has made the historical irrelevance of the neighborhood’s votes even harder to take.
“You work so hard over time to see things change,” Dantley said. “And it’s almost as if once they begin to progress in a way that seems to be more democratic, that seems to be more egalitarian, then some technicality of switching lines comes in ..,” he said, his voice trailing off.
“It’s hard not to feel defeated by that,” he continued, “because it’s just with the wave of a hand, some of the hard work that you’ve been fighting for, it’s like it’s lost its impact.”
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Michael Dantley at Christ Emmanuel Christian Fellowship in Cincinnati. “ … It’s almost as if once they begin to progress in a way that seems to be more democratic, that seems to be more egalitarian, then some technicality of switching lines comes in …” Dantley said of the congressional maps that divide the city.
Two conservative White Republicans represent Hamilton County, which voted for Joe Biden by 16 points. Rep. Steve Chabot’s 1st district contains downtown Cincinnati and neighborhoods to the west. A sliver of land juts northeast from there, creating a narrow bridge to capture all of conservative Warren County, which is 82 percent White and voted for Donald Trump by 20 points. The remainder of the city is in the 2nd district, represented by Rep. Brad Wenstrup, it includes eastern Cincinnati and its diverse neighborhoods are swamped by the Republican strongholds of Adams, Brown and Clermont counties.
Kate Schroder, a Democrat, ran against Chabot in 2020, hoping demographic changes since the last redistricting would give her a shot. She lost by seven percentage points, due to strong turnout in White neighborhoods for Trump and the gerrymandered lines.
“It’s a painful lesson to learn, to run in a district that is intentionally carved up to make some votes carry more weight than others,” said Schroder, who is White.
Cincinnati residents say the costs have extended beyond disenfranchising voters to ignoring the area’s needs.
Pete Witte, who is a White Republican, has lived in the urban Price Hill neighborhood his entire life. He runs an engraving and sign printing shop out of a downtrodden building on a main thoroughfare, where storefronts are boarded up, houses are in disrepair and violent crime is rampant. Witte said that 20 years ago, when the district was concentrated on Hamilton County, Chabot was “easily one of the hardest workers of his day.” But as his district got significantly more Republican and centered elsewhere, Witte said, he “doesn’t get out there like he used to.”
“He’s elected by every neighborhood except the ones that need the most investment,” Witte said. “I would love to have a congressman who is knee-deep in our [needs] and helps us get it done, regardless of party.”
Chabot declined an interview through his spokeswoman Mackenzie Martinez. She said he has a “long history of representing all Cincinnati and Hamilton County residents. He knows the neighborhoods he represents, and he works hard to help everyone in those communities, regardless of partisan considerations.”
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The Cincinnati skyline. Two conservative White Republicans represent Hamilton County — where Cincinnati is located — which voted for Joe Biden by 16 points in the 2020 presidential election.
Chabot has held the seat since 1995, only losing it once to a Democrat for one term in 2008 before winning it back in the GOP wave election in 2010. But his wins when the district was located mostly in Hamilton County were razor thin, amounting to a few percentage points.
When it came time to redraw the lines in 2011, Republicans in the Ohio legislature worked to ensure incumbents like him were unbeatable and to secure a few more seats. They drew new maps with no input from the public, drafting them in a secret hotel room they called “the bunker” and heeding demands from national Republicans, including a top aide to then-U.S. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
The year Chabot was defeated, Barack Obama won Ohio’s presidential election and Democrats took 10 congressional seats to the Republicans’ eight. Four years later, after redistricting, Obama again won the state, but the congressional delegation was now locked in at 12 Republicans and four Democrats. Not a single seat has flipped since, and Chabot went from winning his elections narrowly to romping by 20 percentage points.
Republicans have made little attempt to mask the contortions that made those easy victories possible. In 2011, mapmakers sliced through Xavier University; students shopping for new clothes at the University Station bookstore to wear to the next basketball game are in one district, and when cheering in the arena, they’re in another.
At an intersection in the predominantly Black area of Bond Hill, people on one side of the street live in the 1st district and on the other side, their neighbors live in the 2nd district. Further north, in a quiet, tree-lined area, a district line cuts right through a ranch-style home, the bedroom in one district and the garage in another.
“The process is awful … these maps are a huge slap in the face to Ohio voters and their overwhelming support for depoliticizing this process in the constitutional amendment they passed,” said Kathleen Clyde, a former Democratic state representative who this year started the Ohio Citizens’ Redistricting Commission to hold official map drawers accountable.
The 2018 ballot measure that sought to ensure no party could draw lines to their obvious political advantage unintentionally made that goal difficult, due to the convoluted, easily-manipulated process it set up for approving future maps. It bounced the job between the state legislature and a separate 7-member commission that included three statewide officials — the governor, auditor and secretary of state, now all Republicans — as well as two Republican state lawmakers and two Democratic ones.
When the legislature missed its late September deadline to craft a House map, it punted to the commission. The commission failed to produce a map, missing its end of October deadline and sending the matter back to the legislature. Three days later, Republicans in the state senate and the state House released separate congressional maps.
The amendment did limit some gerrymandering by forcing cities be kept whole. A new map released by state Republicans on Monday gives the GOP control of nine seats to two for Democrats, according to a Post analysis of 2020 presidential election results. Four seats — including Chabot’s — appear competitive. (Wenstrup’s district, already more Republican than Chabot’s, grew even more Republican.)
Still, those proportions are vastly different from recent top-of-the-ticket election results: Statewide, Trump beat Biden 53 percent to 45 percent in 2020, and DeWine beat his Democratic opponent, 50 percent to 46 percent, in 2018.
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Political signs from this month’s elections near the line that divides congressional districts in Cincinnati.
The map will only be in effect for four years, since fewer than one-third of legislative Democrats approved of it. The amendment required that level of support for a 10-year map — an incentive to collaborate on fair lines. The Democrats’ only recourse is appealing to the state Supreme Court, which is made up of four Republicans and three Democrats.
State Senate president Huffman and House Speaker Bob Cupp, say they have worked within the language of the constitutional amendment that says the maps should “correspond closely” to voting outcomes.
Republicans have argued that rather than the maps reflecting the average margin between the parties in recent elections, what mattered was they’d won just over 80% of the last 16 statewide elections. That meant they were entitled to that many seats, they said.
Evidence obtained in a lawsuit brought against new legislative maps found that all three statewide GOP officials who sit on the redistricting commission disagreed with that premise, but did not object to the new districts.
Daniel Tierney, a spokesman for Gov. DeWine, said the Republican maps have “split fewer counties and communities; the guardrails put in place have resulted in fewer of those splits than in previous Ohio maps.”
But at hearings, Ohioans pleaded with the lawmakers to produce fairer lines. One woman, who had volunteered in the effort to get the anti-gerrymandering amendment on the ballot, cried last week as she shared that she felt “stupid that I honestly believed that my government would do the right thing.”
In August, the reaction had been similar as the redistricting commission held hearings around the state focused on the legislative maps. Residents packed one room at the University of Cincinnati and overflowed into a second. One by one, citizens stood and implored the commissioners not to take away their voice.
“When looking at those local candidates, I didn’t see anyone who represented me,” said a multiracial university student. “This reduces the impact of my vote … this lack of representation also discourages me from participating in the democratic process.”
Vanessa Enoch, a Democrat who unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 2020 in a gerrymandered district that hugs the northern edge of Hamilton County, spoke near the end, saying many Cincinnatians have been intentionally silenced.
“No one wants to live in a state that is oppressive and that is the end result when dealing with gerrymandering: your voices aren’t heard,” Enoch, who is Black, said in an interview. “They have us in a chokehold and they refuse to let go. They don’t care as long as they hold onto power.”