Roughly 63 miles south of the Chicago Loop, atop black-oak sand savannas, lies tiny Pembroke Township, one of the most poverty-stricken rural locales in Illinois—and the country. The 2010 census found 2,140 residents, but local officials say that many more who live in shanties and trailers went uncounted. Numerous families in the predominantly African-American community still lack modern plumbing, an estimated 76.9 percent of families with children under 5 live below the poverty line, and Pembroke’s unemployment rate in 2012 (28.1 percent) was triple the state average (9.3 percent). “Economically, we are just dead in the water. We’re one of the oldest townships in the state, and we’re the poorest,” says Sharon White, the town’s elected supervisor.
Over the years, Pembroke’s dire living standards have been the subject of wrenching profiles in The New York Times, on the Oprah Winfrey Show, and elsewhere. But attention can only go so far, and little has changed. As a sparse backwoods outpost in much larger, mostly white Kankakee County, Pembroke has struggled to win something arguably more valuable—effective advocacy from its elected leaders. They just seem to come and go. “All the public officials have come through Pembroke, and we still have the highest unemployment and poverty levels in the county,” White laments.
Pembroke’s revolving-door phenomenon isn’t just imagined: Thanks to successive wave elections and partisan redistricting, it has elected five different candidates to the U.S. House in just the last 10 years, none of whom have stuck around long enough to make a lasting impact. The passersby have ranged from GOP Rep. Jerry Weller, who retired in 2008 after failing to properly disclose purchases of beachfront property in Nicaragua, to Democratic Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who resigned from the House in November 2012 shortly before his indictment on charges of misusing campaign funds.
Can residents even identify their representatives anymore? “A lot of people don’t know,” White says. “You can’t keep up with it.”
To be sure, state and local government has let Pembroke down, too. In 1999, GOP Gov. George Ryan proposed building a women’s prison in Pembroke, with the promise of new infrastructure and jobs for residents. But Ryan’s successor, Rod Blagojevich, canceled plans $13 million into the prison’s construction (ironically, both governors ended up in prison themselves). “There’s still a huge concrete slab where the prison was supposed to be,” says Christopher Bohlen, who has served as Kankakee’s corporation counsel since 1997.
In 2010, when a tornado tore through Pembroke and decimated several homes, the state failed to designate it a state disaster area because Kankakee County officials refused to make a request on Pembroke’s behalf. At the time, County Board Chairman Mike Bossert told the Kankakee Daily Journal that the damage “might not rise to the level required to make that designation.”
When state and local leaders haven’t delivered, Pembroke hasn’t exactly been able to turn to its rotating crop of House members. “When you change congressmen every two years, it makes people less interested, less connected,” says Bohlen. “Jesse Jackson Jr. had a press conference on the issue [of Pembroke’s plight], but nothing came of it. I was concerned when we were moved into his district [in 2012 redistricting] because he’d had no prior contact with our area.”
As it turns out, Jackson might not have any future contact, either. In April 2013, he was replaced in a special election by Democrat Robin Kelly, who hails from Chicago’s far away southern suburbs. White has yet to meet her and worries, “Maybe she doesn’t have time.”
The list of well-publicized reasons Americans feel detached from their paralyzed Congress is longer than a Ted Cruz filibuster. Long before the government shutdown, a Public Policy Polling survey in January found that voters held the body in lower regard than head lice, used-car salesmen, and even the band Nickelback.
The caveat has always been that “Americans love their own congressman, even if they hate Congress.” Sure enough, a May 2013 Gallup survey found that while only 16 percent of voters approved of Congress, 46 percent approved of their own representative (41 percent disapproved). However, as voters’ approval of Congress has declined over time, their views of their own representative have declined, too. Back in 1992, a Gallup Poll found that a much more robust 58 percent of voters approved of their own representative, while 31 percent disapproved.
Interestingly, Gallup in May asked a separate set of voters another version of the “own representative” question, first querying whether they knew the name and party of their representative, then whether they approved. Among the 35 percent who could name their representative, a much higher 62 percent approved, leading Gallup to suggest that voters who do not know their representative’s name “hold him or her in lower regard” and “may be evaluating that person largely on their generally negative feelings about how the broader institution is doing.”
So, could part of Americans’ deteriorating attachment to the institution and its inhabitants have something to do with the basic fact that most voters (at least 65 percent) simply don’t know who they are? And if so, can the civically disenchanted be blamed for not knowing?
Maybe not. One oft-overlooked hallmark of the past decade has been the historic and head-spinning level of turnover in Congress. Successive partisan wave elections in 2006, 2008, and 2010 acted as a centrifuge, sorting seats between the parties and whirling out longtime incumbents who spent years cultivating their own personal attachments to constituents. And in 2012, redistricting acted as an industrial slicer, cleaving even more well-known incumbents from familiar constituents, often unnecessarily and for partisan reasons.
Most Americans’ representatives have changed over the past 10 years, whether they have wanted a change or not. For many voters, opportunities to get to know members on a personal level, whether through a local congressional office or during a campaign, have been fleeting.
WHERE THE MOST CONFUSED CONSTITUENTS LIVE
At the extreme end of congressional flux, National Journal has identified 10 places that have elected, or have been represented by, at least five different individuals over the past 10 years. The list even includes one neighborhood in Houston that has, incredibly, been represented by six—thanks to a 2004 mid-decade redistricting orchestrated by its own former representative, Tom DeLay. If it’s been overlooked in the political shuffle, at least the neighborhood has an appropriate name: Skyscraper Shadows.
All 10 of these places have three things in common. First, they have experienced multiple changes in party control, often floating like flotsam and jetsam between Democrats and Republicans in wave elections. Second, they have been jostled into new and often gerrymandered districts by 2012 redistricting. Third, in each area, local elected officials say they can sympathize with flummoxed or indifferent constituents whose attitudes toward their member of Congress are best summed up with a collective, “Who?”
Beyond confusion at the ballot box, frequent changes in representation can hold real consequences: They can disrupt delicate constituent casework and rob communities of the opportunity to build seniority in Congress and fight for local projects. The following mind-benders could qualify as a congressional geek’s version of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.”
1. Northern Clarke County, Ga.
Timeline: In 2003, the northern edge of Clarke County was represented by GOP Rep. Max Burns in the 12th District. But in 2004, Burns lost reelection to Democrat John Barrow. In 2005, Georgia’s Republican Legislature redrew Athens and Clarke County into GOP Rep. Charlie Norwood’s 10th District. But just a month into his seventh term, Norwood died from complications of lung cancer, and he was replaced by Republican Paul Broun in a July 2007 special election. In 2011, the Legislature lopped off the northern edge of the county into the new 9th District, which is now represented by freshman GOP Rep. Doug Collins.
Impact: “The northern part of the county refers to itself as the ‘forgotten one,’ ” says Athens Area Chamber of Commerce President Doc Eldridge. “I doubt a majority of people in that area could tell you Doug Collins is their congressman right now. I was mayor of Athens in the late ’90s, and we had lobbied the Legislature to create a district with Athens as the population center, but it never happened. They just split us up. It’s a challenge because [voters] are removed physically from their congressman’s center of influence.”
2. Butts/Jasper/Newton counties, Ga.
Timeline: In 2003, Republican Mac Collins was the incumbent in the 8th District in this rural area south of Atlanta. But in 2004, he ran unsuccessfully for Senate and was replaced by Republican Lynn Westmoreland. In 2005, Georgia’s Legislature threw these counties into a refashioned Macon-based 8th District, which Democratic Rep. Jim Marshall narrowly held in 2006. In the 2010 GOP wave, Marshall was ousted by Republican Austin Scott. In 2011, the Legislature transferred these counties into Broun’s 10th District.
Impact: “If you were to go out on the street and ask most anyone who their congressman is, no one would know. We’ve always been on the edge of whatever district,” says Dan Jordan, who has served as Jasper County’s clerk of courts since 1988. “We handle passports in the clerk’s office, and Jim Marshall had a person who was good at cutting through the red tape. But by the time we established a relationship, we got Austin Scott and an entirely new staff.”
3. Parts of Boise, Idaho
Timeline: In 2005, the West Valley neighborhood of Boise was represented by GOP Rep. Butch Otter in the 1st District. But in 2006, Otter left to run for governor, and Republican Bill Sali took his seat. Sali proved unpopular, and lost to Democrat Walt Minnick in a 2008 upset. In 2010, Minnick fell victim to a wave and lost to Republican Raul Labrador. In 2011, Idaho’s redistricting commission shifted the West Valley into the 2nd District, now represented by GOP Rep. Mike Simpson.
Impact: “The chamber of commerce has always favored splitting Boise [in redistricting], because we feel we have two congressmen, not one,” explains Ray Stark, senior vice president of the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce. But the turnover has also made lobbying trips to D.C. slightly less convenient. “The most challenging thing has been to find [our members’] offices deep down in the Longworth building because they’ve always been lowest on the totem pole,” Stark says.
4. Kankakee/Will counties, Ill.
Timeline: In 2007, Kankakee County and southern parts of Will County were represented by GOP Rep. Jerry Weller in the 11th District. But in 2008, Weller retired, and Democrat Debbie Halvorson easily won the seat. In 2010, Halvorson fell victim to the GOP wave and lost to Republican Adam Kinzinger. In 2011, Illinois’s Democratic Legislature moved the area into the Chicago-based 2nd District, represented by Jesse Jackson Jr. But Jackson resigned amid an FBI investigation in November 2012 (before even being sworn in to represent the area), and Democrat Robin Kelly won a special election to fill the seat in April 2013.
Impact: “We’re a primarily rural county, and someone born and raised on the south side of Chicago has no idea the difference between an ear of corn and a soybean,” complains Bohlen, the Kankakee counsel. “We were trying to build a railroad overpass over a city street, and between the various transitions of congressmen and the loss of earmarks, we’ve lost all the federal commitment of those transportation funds—about $13 million. That was a big deal. It takes away from the ability to get constituent services, to the point [the city] even hired a lobbyist in Washington.”
5. Most of Calhoun County, Mich.
Timeline: In 2003, veteran GOP Rep. Nick Smith represented Battle Creek in the 7th District. In 2004, he retired and was replaced by moderate Republican Joe Schwarz. In 2006, Club for Growth-backed Republican Tim Walberg beat Schwarz in a heated primary. In 2008, Walberg lost reelection to Democrat Mark Schauer. In 2010, Walberg regained his old seat by ousting Schauer. In 2011, Michigan’s Republican Legislature moved most of Calhoun County into the Grand Rapids-based 3rd District, now represented by GOP Rep. Justin Amash.
Impact: “Considering the politics of Battle Creek, it’s a really divided county,” explains Al Pheley, a politically well-connected epidemiologist who was president of the Albion school board. “Schauer was big on high-speed rail issues and stimulus money, but with Walberg and Amash, because of their [anti-spending] philosophy, they’re not bringing in these projects. It’s been tough, especially with redistricting, because Walberg’s still on the fringe of the district, so [voters] are confused.”
6. Southern Monroe County, N.Y.
Timeline: In 2003, Rochester’s southern suburbs were represented by GOP Rep. Amo Houghton in the southern tier 29th District. In 2004, Houghton retired and was replaced by Republican Randy Kuhl. In 2008, Democrat Eric Massa beat Kuhl, but in March 2010 Massa resigned after admitting to starting unwanted tickle fights with staff members. Republican Tom Reed took the seat later that year. In 2011, a court-drawn map moved these towns into the 25th District, now represented by Rochester-based Democratic Rep. Louise Slaughter.
Impact: “We don’t need a lot to get done [by the federal government],” offers Henrietta Town Supervisor Michael Yudelson, who caused a local uproar last week when he switched his affiliation from Republican to Democrat after he “heard Ted Cruz was planning a shutdown, and I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ” However, “what’s noticeable is the presence in the district. We didn’t see our reps a lot when they were from the southern tier. But Louise Slaughter does a lot for Rochester Institute of Technology, which is in Henrietta, so it’s nice having that.”
7. Saratoga/Glens Falls area, N.Y.
Timeline: In 2005, Saratoga, Washington, and Warren counties were represented by GOP Rep. John Sweeney in the 20th District. In 2006, Sweeney lost reelection to Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand. In 2009, after Gillibrand’s appointment to the Senate, Democrat Scott Murphy won a special election by 726 votes. But in the 2010 wave, Murphy lost to Republican Chris Gibson. In 2011, a court-drawn map moved the area into two nearby seats: areas north of Saratoga Springs went to Democratic Rep. Bill Owens’s 21st District, while areas south went to Democratic Rep. Paul Tonko’s 20th District.
Impact: “They’ve all been very helpful, and it hasn’t hurt us in general,” says Mechanicville Town Supervisor Tom Richardson. “It’s a matter of approach. I’ve dealt with Scott Murphy, then Gibson was very helpful, and Paul Tonko’s been very helpful. He’s been here on many occasions already. He’s very approachable.” Still, others see a downside. “It’s very confusing,” says longtime Washington County resident Barbara Rymph. “We’re so disjointed; people don’t know who they’re voting for.”
8. Skyscraper Shadows, Texas
Timeline: In 2003, the Skyscraper Shadows neighborhood of Houston was represented by Democratic Rep. Chris Bell in the 25th District. But in 2004, redistricting partially orchestrated by Republican then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay moved the enclave into DeLay’s 22nd District. In April 2006, DeLay resigned amid questions about his relationship with lobbyist Jack Abramoff. In November 2006, Republican Shelley Sekula-Gibbs won a two-month “lame-duck” term in a special election, but Democrat Nick Lampson simultaneously was victorious in the election for the next full term. Lampson lost reelection to Republican Pete Olson in 2008, and in 2011 the Legislature redrew Skyscraper Shadows into the 29th District of Democratic Rep. Gene Green.
Impact: “Yeah, it’s been pretty confusing,” admits Wanda Adams, who represents Skyscraper Shadows on the Houston City Council. “Anytime you don’t have consistency in government, it’s always going to affect the constituent, but that’s politics. It’s not the constituent’s fault. Unfortunately, sometimes on the ground, the community suffers for it. Skyscraper Shadows is a very diverse community, and they have a great leader now in Gene Green—he tries to help with immigration, payday lending, and housing issues.”
9. Southwest Bexar County, Texas
Timeline: In 2003, Democratic Rep. Charlie Gonzalez represented the southwestern corner of San Antonio’s Bexar County in the 20th District. But in 2004, the Republican Legislature redrew the area into the 28th District, won by Democrat Henry Cuellar. In 2006, the Supreme Court forced the area into the 23rd District, won by Democrat Ciro Rodriguez. In 2010, Rodriguez lost to Republican Quico Canseco, who lost to current Democratic Rep. Pete Gallego in 2012.
Impact: “One of the biggest issues Somerset has is representation, because we are a rural community right outside of San Antonio, living next to the big giants,” Somerset Town Administrator Miguel Cantu explains. “With Rodriguez, he did assist us with a wastewater treatment plant through the USDA. We never had any interaction with Canseco. With Gallego, we haven’t really become very active with the individual yet.” But can Cantu blame residents for not knowing who their congressman is? “No, word of mouth works pretty well. They’re pretty resilient,” he laughs.
10. Parts of Norfolk/Hampton, Va.
Timeline: In 2003, GOP Rep. Ed Schrock represented parts of Norfolk and Hampton in the 2nd District. But in 2004, he dropped his bid for a third term amid allegations he solicited sex from a male prostitute, and Republican Thelma Drake won the seat. In 2008, Drake lost reelection to Democrat Glenn Nye. In 2010, Nye lost reelection to Republican Scott Rigell. In 2011, Virginia’s Legislature moved these neighborhoods into the 3rd District, now represented by Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott.
Impact: “The city of Norfolk should be in one district, but they carved out the white sections to put them in the Republican district,” says keen Hampton Roads political observer and blogger Vivian Paige. “You can’t blame folks for not knowing [who their representative is] when there’s a circumstance like this. It gets confusing. What adds to the confusion is events—you don’t know whether it’s your Congress critter or the other Congress critter that’s holding the event.” But sorting out the casework is less of a problem, Paige says. “At the district level, they work together better than they ever work in Washington.”
This article appears in the October 26, 2013, edition of National Journal Magazine as The Most Volatile Districts in America.