Former Pitt Chancellor scores high marks to lead divided redistricting

Former University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg.

Former University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg. PittWire

This week the Pennsylvania Supreme Court tapped former University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg to lead the state’s Legislative Reapportionment Commission, the powerful body tasked with drawing state legislative maps. Following his appointment, Nordenberg was widely praised for his academic experience and political independence, facets that many believe will aid him as chair of the LRC.

Nordenberg’s selection comes after the rest of the commission — made up of Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff and House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton — were unable to reach a consensus after interviewing roughly 40 applicants for the role.

The high court’s appointment of Nordenberg, who is currently chancellor emeritus at Pitt and chair of the university’s Institute of Politics, comes as the once-in-a-decade map-drawing process is set to begin once updated U.S. Census data is received. 

In addition to his work at Pitt, Nordenberg also served as a member of former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s transition team in 2010, while also donating to President Joe Biden’s election campaign in 2020.

Given the amount of attention paid to Pennsylvania’s redistricting processes in recent years, and the politically divided makeup of the commission, Pennsylvania politicos have high hopes for Nordenberg, while acknowledging the clear challenges he’ll face as head of the LRC.

Fair Districts PA Chair and redistricting reform advocate Carol Kuniholm told City & State that Nordenberg seems to be a “very well-qualified” pick who, on the surface, seems to shirk clear political and ideological leanings.

“I think it's a good pick. I mean from everything that we can discern, he seems like a very well-qualified person for this,” Kuniholm said. “He seems to not be strongly aligned with either party. We have some criteria in the bill we support [The Legislative and Congressional Redistricting Act, or LACRA] that describes who the person should not be, and he falls nicely in line with the qualifications we would want to see which is not being a lobbyist or a legislator or a paid employee in recent years and he has not been any of those. So as far as the qualifications we would want to see, he seems like a really good pick.”

Still, Kuniholm said that Nordenberg, along with anyone tapped to lead the commission under the current system, will face “incredible pressure” from all sides of the political spectrum.

“Whoever the chairperson is is under huge pressure to draw districts that favor incumbents, and to draw districts that favor the party that selected that person. There's still that kind of pressure behind the scenes and that pressure has not been removed,” Kuniholm said. “And that is of concern. There's nothing in Pennsylvania law that says it's illegal to draw a district that favors an incumbent, or [that] it's illegal to draw a district that favors the party. And so the pressure to do that will be huge.”

As chairman of the Legislative Reapportionment Commission, Nordenberg will solely be involved with the creation of state legislative maps. Pennsylvania’s congressional districts are instead drawn by the General Assembly and approved in the form of a bill and signed into law by the governor. 

Legislative leaders, former officials and government reform advocates also weighed in on the selection of Nordenberg, praising his experience in academia, while acknowledging the challenging path ahead of him.

“I am pleased the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has come to a swift decision on naming the fifth member to the Legislative Reapportionment Commission,” said Ward in a prepared statement. “Mark Nordenberg has extensive experience working through complex issues in his decades long career at the University of Pittsburgh. The citizens of Pennsylvania are counting on him to navigate the challenging process in his role as chairman of the commission.”

Costa, in an email statement to City & State, said Nordenberg “has earned a reputation for transparency and accountability - integral parts of the work that the Legislative Reapportionment Commission is about to begin.”

“I have found him to be fair minded and thoughtful, and I am pleased that he meets the criteria we asked the Supreme Court to consider in its selection: he has not held elected office and has not served as staff for a politician,” Costa explained. “It was critical that we selected someone who has distanced themselves from politics, but still has strong knowledge of this state and its governance.”

Benninghoff noted in a statement emailed to City & State that Chief Justice Max Baer’s choice of Nordenberg for the commission was made “in a timely manner.” I look forward to engaging in a fair, open, and legal redistricting process." McClinton, also in an email statement,calledNordenberg “well qualified for the job. “I look forward to working with the chairman to pursue a fair and open redistricting process.”

Former Gov. Tom Ridge tweeted  that Nordenberg’s “integrity, thoughtfulness & dedication to the future of the Keystone State will serve us all well.”

The Committee of Seventy and Draw the Lines PA, a government reform group, released a statement congratulating Nordenberg. “As the former chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh and current chair of the university’s Institute of Politics, we’ve had the privilege to work with Chancellor Nordenberg on various occasions, especially over the last three years as Draw the Lines has barnstormed the Commonwealth engaging people on this issue.”

“We've found him to be intensely fair, detailed, and outcomes-driven,” the committee added. “We are confident that Mark will play this by the book — working to give Pennsylvanians state House and Senate maps that don't repeat the gerrymanders we experienced in the last cycle. His reputation for fairness and sober-minded, fact-based leadership is exactly what the commission requires. We expect him to deliver again in this season of service.”