Why am I devoting the last part of my working career to Draw the Lines? That answer begins with a Ping-Pong table.
This particular table sat—in all its ragged, chipped, forest-green glory—in the basement of my parents’ house in suburban Cleveland.
Over the years, that rickety rectangle hosted plenty of raucous Ping-Pong games among my Dad, me, my brother and our friends.
But several times a year, it was transformed into Campaign Central.
My father was deeply involved in both local and union politics. When election time came, as it so often did, the paddles and balls got shelved. The old green table groaned under a burden of flyers, palm cards, bumper stickers and the other gewgaws of mid-century campaigning.
For the Satullo brothers, the iron rule was: No TV or touch football up at the park until we’d done our daily duty — folding flyers and stuffing envelopes.
My Dad was pure Greatest Generation. I’ve never been sure whether to call him a first- or second-generation immigrant, as he was conceived in Sicily, gestated on the boat to Ellis Island and made it to America to be born. He went to East Tech High in Cleveland, training as a printer (ink is in my veins).
He signed up for World War II—Army, quartermaster corps. He came ashore in France a bit after D-Day (thankfully) and (I think) saw some of the Battle of the Bulge. (He never, ever spoke about the war, except to talk about courting the British girl whom, after V-E Day, he brought back to Ohio as his bride.)
After that, he lived the upward, post-war American story: college at night on the GI Bill, two kids, a brick house in the ‘burbs with the help of a VA loan, constant hard work, great parenting.
He also displayed a full, un-ironic commitment to active citizenship: Show up, get involved, do the work, study the issues, turn out the vote, never stop trying to leave the place better than you found it.
He did that full-bore until, suddenly, he died. At the age of 53 (cancer).
My father was an absolute sap for the ideals of democracy. He made sure to instill them in me.
Still, over 40-plus years as a journalist, I was fated to endure much close-up witnessing of the ignorance, nastiness and corruptibility of politics in these United States. This eventually imbued me with something else as well: a deep skepticism about the people who seek and hold elected office.
Even so, that never chipped away, not one bit, at my fundamental, inherited love for the idea of American democracy. Government of the people, by the people, for the people is simply the best freaking notion human beings have ever come up with for how to live together.
So why Draw the Lines? Because every one of my four decades as a journalist was spent in our maddening Commonwealth of Pennsylvania—either in the Lehigh Valley or Philly.
Let me put it this way: At least once before I die, I would like to see democracy in my adopted state work the way my Dad taught me it was supposed to work.
Just once, people. Just once.
Gerrymandering is far from the only reason democracy and government work so poorly in our broken state.
Pennsylvania is, after all, the Wild West of campaign finance: no rules and very little done right. Our election system is designed, more so than in many other states, to disenfranchise independents and squash fresh ideas. The path to political reform here passes through a constitutional process so ludicrously complicated it’s essentially the 400-meter high hurdles of government.
But the woe all begins with those screwy, tortured election districts designed to let elected officials pick their voters, rather than letting the voters pick their elected officials.
Gerrymandering is, I’ve come to conclude, the bug in the operating system of the democracy.
Forty years spent watching Pennsylvania politics in action—as a columnist in Easton, an editorial page editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, as head of news at WHYY public media—have given me a few insights, I think, into how to isolate and fix the bug.
In my soul, I’m still a journalist, but I’m done with working for legacy media, which are built to disappoint. At this point in my life, I know exactly what, if he were here, my earnest, idealistic Dad would want me to do with whatever time, experience and energy I have left.
It’s Draw the Lines.
Chris Satullo is an veteran journalist and civic engagement leader, having been a news executive at the Philadelphia Inquirer and WHYY public media and co-founding the Penn Project for Civic Engagement at the University of Pennsylvania. He also co-led the 2011 Fix Philly Districts mapping contest. He has recently been working with the Committee of Seventy as a civic engagement consultant.