These 10 Districts Are Most Likely to Fire Their Congressmen

A look at areas that have been represented by five or more House members in a decade — and the headaches they’ve suffered because of it.

Illinois resident Janie Smith (L) with Chicago businessman Sal Dimiceli (R) in her home. In 1993 Dimiceli, 49, founded the nonprofit organization The Time is Now which donates goods, services, and cash to the people of Pembroke Township in Illinois.  
National Journal
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David Wasserman
Oct. 24, 2013, 5 p.m.

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 National Journal

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.   Where the Most Con­fused Con­stitu­ents Live

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.

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.” 


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