Ohio Redistricting Commission spends Jewish high holy day in doubleheader public meetings
In a region representing a major majority of Jewish communities in the state, the Ohio Redistricting Commission spent the holiest day of the religion’s calendar talking Statehouse maps.
The ORC met at Punderson Manor Lodge & Conference Center in Newbury on Monday for a morning and evening public hearing. Democrats said they requested an additional hearing specifically because the Monday meeting fell on Yom Kippur.
The additional meeting was instead scheduled for later the same day.
But leaders didn’t get away with scheduling two meetings during the “day of atonement” that often means days off from school and work to attend services. The move can be compared to those of the Christian faith holding a business meeting on Easter.
“I was surprised that no one had looked at the calendar, recognizing that this is the holiest day of my faith, and that there are over 100,000 people of the Jewish faith in Northeast Ohio, specifically in the Cuyahoga County community bordering where we are today,” William Weisenberg told the commission on Monday.
An 2021 analysis by Brandeis University showed one-third of Ohio’s Jewish electorate lives in the 11th and 14th congressional districts, both of which are in the northeastern corner of the state and contain Cleveland and Akron.
State Rep. Casey Weinstein, D-Hudson, whose 34th House District spans from Cuyahoga Falls, west to Everett and north to Boston Heights, called the scheduling and chosen location “a giant FU to the Jewish community and the public at large.”
Republican commission co-chair and Auditor of State Keith Faber said he received messages from Weisenberg about the holy day after the meetings were scheduled, and acknowledged the commission “made a mistake on picking the dates.”
He also acknowledged the 5:30 p.m. meeting time “doesn’t do well” for those breaking the Yom Kippur fast at sundown to end the holy day.
“The dates were picked to try and keep with the schedule Secretary (of State Frank) LaRose picked and the dates were made at the meeting in a motion,” Faber said. “That’s what happens when we act on the fly.”
The Ohio Redistricting Commission started work on statehouse districts two weeks ago, after more than a year of inaction and some refusal to adhere to court deadlines. The group stumbled right out of the gate when Republican infighting kept the commission from naming a co-chair for a full week after the first meeting gaveled in.
Last Thursday, GOP-supported maps were adopted as a working document, leading to the public testimony that is scheduled to conclude on Tuesday. The maps have a partisan breakdown that would give the GOP a 62-37 advantage in the Ohio House, and a 23-10 lead in the Senate.
Faber said the commission “reached out to the Ohio Jewish Federation” to communicate that written testimony would be accepted on the Statehouse district maps, and leaders explored the option of holding Tuesday’s meeting at a Jewish community center in Columbus, but instead went with the Ohio Senate Finance Hearing Room at the Statehouse.
“I think the consensus was, for the work and the effort involved, having that same hearing downtown in Columbus might have just been as accommodating, as opposed to a few blocks difference in the location, with the technology and things that were necessary,” Faber said on Monday.
Perception vs. reality
Weisenberg said after attending services Sunday night, he chose to take the holiday’s meaning to heart by respecting others “and understanding that we can all do better.”
“Right now what concerns me as a citizen is the fact that our public, our citizenry, has lost trust and confidence in our institutions of government,” Weisenberg told the commission. “It’s lost trust and confidence, and worries about a demise and the perils facing our democracy.”
Other attendees of the Monday meetings included a registered Republican who said he was “frankly disgusted by the redistricting commission’s goal to gerrymander districts,” and an independent voter from Geneva-on-the-Lake questioning the perception coming from the commission’s work.
“The perception seems to be that as long as we have power, we will protect those who help us keep it,” said Justin Tjaden. “The perception is ‘we are the new Ohio Republican Party, we are the government, and we’re here to help, whether you want it or not.'”
Many speakers agreed on one thing: revisions to the commission’s makeup are needed, and should include independent – unelected – members.
“I believe everyone’s vote should matter,” said Eastlake resident Jaime Shatsman. “But watching this play out, it’s starting to feel like a redistricting commission has more influence over who will represent us than actual people who are casting votes in elections.”
One more meeting has been scheduled, set to begin at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, where the commission will hear more public testimony.
The ORC has already passed by a deadline LaRose said should have been met in order to avoid issues for the county boards of election. In a letter sent before the commission began this time around, the state elections chief said maps should be adopted by Sept. 22 to accommodate potential litigation and allow staff to create the documents needed for elections to go forward with any district changes.
In his letter, LaRose did offer that Oct. 23 would be “the latest possible date for the commission to enact a new district plan,” and affirmed this timeline at the Monday evening meeting.
“What I’ve told our team … is that we should be moving as quickly as possible and with all alacrity,” LaRose said.
But commission co-chair Senate Minority Leader Nickie Antonio said there is still disagreement about how long a map would last whether there’s agreement or not within the commission. The constitution calls for bipartisan agreement to implement long-term maps, with only short-term maps possible without bipartisan agreement.
Antonio said she believed the state constitution “is silent on where we are right now,” after five map rejections from the Ohio Supreme Court and two full years of back-and-forth by the commission.
“Unfortunately … because of the strange situation we find ourselves in, it’s not clear,” Antonio said.
WEWS’ Morgan Trau contributed to this story.