Rick Neal and Steve Stivers

Rick Neal and Steve Stivers

A video showing U.S. Rep. Steve Stivers saying “It’s not like I wanted Athens, believe me” has led to sharp criticism from his Democratic opponent and the Stivers campaign responding that the comments were merely a joke about congressional redistricting.

The comments by Stivers came during an appearance earlier in 2018 at the Columbus Metropolitan Club. The comments are highlighted in a new campaign advertisement published Friday by Democratic challenger Rick Neal, of German Village, who is trying to unseat Stivers (R-Upper Arlington).

“I tell people they made up the other districts and I got what was left,” Stivers is shown saying at the Columbus Metropolitan Club, “and it’s not like I wanted Athens, believe me.”

Stivers’ words are sandwiched in the 15-second ad with commentary from Neal’s campaign: “Do you want to know what Steve Stivers really thinks about the folks in Athens? ... Steve Stivers doesn’t care about Athens. Vote him out on November 6.”

In an email to The Messenger, a Stivers spokesperson characterized the comments as a “joke regarding redistricting as a way to emphasize the point that he didn’t draw the district or ask for it to be drawn in its current configuration.”

Stivers represents Ohio’s 15th District, which includes all or parts of 12 different counties in South-Central and Southeast Ohio.

While the district includes some parts of Appalachia (including nearly all of Athens County), it also features suburban areas of Franklin County near Columbus. November’s election will feature two candidates from Upper Arlington and German Village, both more than 70 miles away from Athens.

Stivers was first elected in 2010 and is serving his fourth two-year term in Congress. Though he has been re-elected by comfortable margins in 2012, 2014 and 2016, he has struggled electorally in Athens, which is considered to have a more liberal voting populace.

Stivers won by a nearly two-to-one margin across the 15th District in both 2014 and 2016, while losing in Athens County by equally large margins. He lost Athens County by an 18 percent margin in 2016, a 26 percent margin in 2014 and a 40 percent margin back in 2012.

With Athens County making up just a portion of the hundreds of thousands of registered voters throughout the 15th District, his wins in more Republican-leaning counties have more than made up for his electoral standing here in the Athens area.

The 15th District looked much different when Stivers first campaigned in a losing effort in 2008 and again in 2010 when he won his seat to Congress. Back then, the district featured only the western Columbus metro area of Franklin, Madison and Union counties.

However, districts are redrawn every 10 years to reflect new census data. The 15th District was changed to look radically different from 2013 onward.

It is that context in which the Stivers campaign defends his “joke” to the Columbus Metropolitan Club.

“Rep. Stivers has been a supporter of redistricting reform, was a co-chair for the campaign supporting Issue 1 which passed in May, and wants to see an end to gerrymandering,” campaign manager Adam Rapien stated in an email. Rapien also included a direct statement from Stivers, which reads in full:

“First and foremost, I’m proud to represent Athens County and the Southeast Ohio region. I make it a priority to spend time in each of my counties every year — and that includes Athens County. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago, I hosted an event in Athens County to discuss the future of the Hocking Correctional Unit. I have also been working on initiatives to help students, like those at Ohio University, receive benefits from an employer-sponsored student loan repayment program without additional taxes on their paychecks, and receive additional resources on student loan repayment options from the university.

“Additionally, I’m focused on further finding solutions for the people of Athens in dealing with the opiate crisis, building out broadband infrastructure in the region, and working to increase the number of good paying jobs in our communities,” Stivers concluded.

In his own statement, Neal said it is “amazing to me” that Stivers made those comments while at an event titled “Bipartisan Civility.”

Neal said Stivers’ “cavalier attitude” in relation to congressional districts is “an example of Washington’s swamp coming home to central Ohio.”

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