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Tired Of 'Timid' Responses, Anti-Gerrymandering Group Occupies PA Governor's Office

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Amid chants and songs, sleeping bag-clad protesters sat up one by one to give speeches in favor of congressional and state district maps drawn by citizens, not politicians. (Photo by Katie Meyer/WITF)

HARRISBURG, PA (WSKG) -- A group of frustrated activists spent Tuesday afternoon holding a sit-in at the reception room outside Governor Tom Wolf's office, trying to convince him to call a special legislative session to overhaul Pennsylvania's redistricting process.

It's one of the only avenues they have left if they want to amend the state constitution to change the procedure in time for 2021 redistricting.

That's because with the July 6th deadline for moving an amendment fast-approaching, the legislature has adjourned--likely for the entire summer--leaving the bill in limbo.

Wolf was five hours away in Erie when about two dozen protesters with the group March on Harrisburg quietly walked into his reception room, lay down sleeping bags, and began chanting, "We demand representation. Their response? Go on vacation."

The group's executive director, Rabbi Michael Pollack, acknowledged the governor can't compel lawmakers to vote if they don't want to.

But "what the House can do," he said, "is they come in and just kill a bill and go home. And if they do that, great. We want to see the House members on-record...so that in November, we know who voted for, and who voted against this."

Wolf's chief of staff ultimately agreed to an off-the-record meeting with the group.

But Pollack said he's worried Democrats are just giving redistricting lip service until they can redraw maps to benefit themselves.

"[Wolf] thinks smart politics is taking the safe, middle road," Pollack said. "And it's not. We need bold, creative leadership at this point in our history. We are sick and tired of managers who just cling to the middle and never do anything bold. They're timid."

A spokesman for the administration said Wolf fully supports changing the redistricting process, and "continues to call for Republican leaders in the House and Senate to advance this crucial reform."

The highest-profile proposal to change how the commonwealth draws its maps is currently stalled in the House.

It would let lawmakers from all four caucuses, plus the governor, choose an 11-person redistricting panel. If those panelists can't agree on one of three map options, the question would go to the legislature. If they can't agree, the state Supreme Court would pick a map.

The Senate approved the measure after adding a contentious amendment that would change appellate court elections in the commonwealth so that judges are voted in by district, not statewide.

But House members from both parties bogged it down with more than 700 additional amendments. Though some House leaders say they do support the underlying effort, they've expressed doubt they'll be able to work through the process by July 6th.

If the measure doesn't pass by then, it won't be able to take effect until the redistricting process in 2031.

"Are we going to be able to get, you know, a chunk of these amendments taken off and actually be serious? We'll see," House GOP Spokesman Steve Miskin said Monday, after the House adjourned.

The activists stayed in the reception room, closely watched by police, for about six hours before packing it in. If they left the room to use the bathroom they were barred from reentering. They weren't allowed to bring food inside either.

They're planning additional actions before next week's deadline hits, however.

"We'll give the governor a day or two, and we'll come back stronger next time," Pollack said.