How Did Ohio's Most Liberal City End Up With Its Most Conservative Congressman?
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on December 20, 2017
Ohio’s 4th Congressional District isn’t the longest in the state. Nor the most convoluted. Nor does it have the most disenfranchised voters. But it has the distinction of being near the top in all three categories -- and of being home to one of the most liberal communities in the country represented by one of the most conservative members of Congress. In the third part of our series “Gerrymandering: Shading the lines,” WKSU’s M.L. Schultze travels the 4th – a study of contrasts from south to north.
This is the story of Oberlin and Urbana – and the 14-county Congressional District that connects them.
"The district is commonly referred to as Ohio’s duck, with its bill shoved into portions of Lorain, Huron and Erie counties ..."
In Ohio State professor Ned Hill’s description of Ohio’s 4th, Oberlin is toward the tip of the bill. Much further north and you’re in Lake Erie. And about the only place further east is Grafton, whose 3,300 prison inmates boost the district’s population and share of African-Americans – while not a single one is allowed to vote.
Ohio's most liberal city
On one prominent corner of downtown Oberlin is Oberlin’s First Church -- literally. A banner with the image of Joseph, Mary and and Jesus proclaims – in English and Spanish -- that immigrants and refugees are welcome. Across the street – one historic plaque notes that the town’s resistance to slave catchers earned it the description as ‘The town that started the Civil War.’
Oberlin is the first city in Ohio to turn Columbus Day into Indigenous People's Day. It's home to the first co-ed and interracial college in the country, which gives the town of about 8,300 an outsized national – and very liberal -- reputation.
Janet Garrett, a retired teacher and the Democrat who is preparing for her third long-shot run to represent the 4th District, says she grew up admiring the activism of Oberlin College students in the ‘60s.
“They were my heroes. They were active in the antiwar protests, the women’s rights movements and the civil rights movement.”
Ohio's most conservative congressman
Head three hours southwest to the belly of the 4th District duck, and you're in Urbana and the politically red farms and small towns of Champaign County.
Clayton Colbert has lived here "9/10th of my life here and one thing to say about Urbana is it’s like Mayberry."
Ohio's 4th District includes Allen, Auglaize, Champaign, Crawford, Logan, Sandusky, Seneca, Shelby and Union counties and parts of Erie, Huron, Lorain, Marion and Mercer counties.
Urbana has about 12,000 people. The town square is a circle and heavy truck traffic rumbles through as a statue of a mournful Union Calvary officer keeps watch. Storefronts are mostly full of local businesses.
And about 3 miles out of town is the home of Congressman Jim Jordan, whose web site proclaims him one of the most conservative members of Congress, who “believes that families and taxpayers, rather than government, know best how to make decisions with their money.”
“Ladies and gentleman, why you are here, why are involved in this movement, why you are conservatives is because freedom really counts.”
But Jordan has remained close to home, not far from the high school where he was four-time state champion wrestler. And many in the area say he represents their values well.
“I feel he’s a pretty stand-up guy," says Steven Flora, who graduated from Graham High School about 10 years after Jordan and has started a landscaping business.
“He represents the small community and what this country was built on, the standards and the moral compass, and I feel that he goes by that for the most part and tries to sculpt the nation continue to be that way.”
Back up in Oberlin, City Council President Ronnie Rimbert, views it differently.
“The only time I see Jim Jordan is on TV, when he’s saying Donald Trump’s a great man.” He blames a congressional district map Ohio’s Republican lawmakers created in 2011, one he says slices up communities, stretches districts to ridiculous lengths, ensures GOP dominance and diminishes voters – especially those of different political stripe.
“It’s unfortunate that this nasty game is being played, as far as the gerrymandering game. Jim could care less about what’s going on in Oberlin because he knows what our voter strength is, and it’s definitely not going his way.
Back down south in Urbana, Mayor Bill Bean says Jordan’s been a good rep, but acknowledges geography favors Urbana. He calls it literally the luck of the draw.
"Fortunately, Jim lives here, so I see Jim off and on throughout the year and I can chew on him or whatever.”
But, while he sees Oberlin’s point, he says all parts of the 4th District -- and the rest of Ohio -- should keep Washington in distant perspective; government works best when it's closer to home.
“We have to take care of ourselves.”
Boehner vs. Jordan
Though Ohio’s constitution leaves it the state Legislature to draw the congressional map, the current configuration was constructed largely in secrecy by GOP consultants under then-House Speaker John Boehner’s direction. Before he retired from Congress, the Repbulican Boehner battled Jordan and other arch-conservatives.
It's a rift that hadn't healed even as recently in October when, in an interview with Politico, Boehner called Jordan a "legislative terrorist" -- among other choice words.
Democratic Congressional hopeful Janet Garrett says that enmity may be a clue on what brought liberal Oberlin into the conservative 4th.
“I heard that part of the reason he gerrymandered this part of the Lorain County into the 4th district was to be a thorn in Jim Jordan’s side.”
Garrett isn’t sure if that’s true or a joke. But overall, she maintains the map is no joke. In her mind, it’s a threat to democracy.
A quick look at the 4th District
- Population: 721,717
- Gender: 50.1 % male; 49.9 % female
- Race: 90.4 % white; 5.6% black (including several of Ohio's largest prisons, whose inmates cannot, by law, vote)
- Median household income: $45.326
- High school graduation rate: 88.8 %
- College graduation rate: 15.8 %
How Ohio draws its political districts:
- Based on the 2010 Census, Ohio has 16 Congressional seats.
- Ohio's House of Representatives has 99 districts; Ohio's state Senate has 33 districts.
- The state House and Senate -- with the governor's sign-off -- create the Congressional map.
- The rules that apply to the map making are a U.S. Constitutional requirement that the districts have roughly the same-size population and the requirement in the federal Voting Rights Act that minority voters not be diminished through 'packing' them in one district or 'cracking' them among many.
- Ohio has no special rules as some other states do that would require districts be compact or that districts do not split up cities and other 'communities of interest.'
Here's an outline of WKSU's series this weekend on "Gerrymandering: Shading the Lines"
- Summit County: Four congressional districts and no member of Congress to call its own
- Snakes, ducks and toilet bowls: How's Ohio shape its congressional districts?
- How'd Ohio's most liberal town end up represented by one of the nation's most conservative congressmen?
- Pressure builds to change how Ohio draws its map
- Other states offer other models for Ohio