Back-room redistricting

March 20, 1991

Members of the Baltimore City Council are giving political scientists a classic example of how not to redraw councilmanic boundary lines. They cut a back-room deal this week that badly )) skews the city along racial lines and sets the stage for divisive and dangerously polarized elections in the fall.

If this redistricting plan is approved, the city's majority black population would dominate 5 of 6 council districts with a chance of controlling 15 of 18 seats. That would equal 84 percent representation for the 60 percent of the city's citizens who are black. The 40 percent of the city which is white would be left with 16 percent of the council seats.

This plan is every bit as wrongheaded and racially destructive as past plans by white politicians which led to a 60-percent white council in a majority-black city. The result would be the same: political isolation of communities, whose citizens feel disenfranchised. That could accelerate middle-class flight and destabilize neighborhoods.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke rightly worries about this plan's legality under federal law. He also voices legitimate concern about the exclusion of the public from the decision-making process. Yesterday's hearing was a sham that was quickly scheduled to give the facade of public discussion. In fact, the redistricting plan was concocted in private deal-making sessions so affected communities would not be able to influence the outcome.

We are surprised Council President Mary Pat Clarke went along with this undemocratic process. She had to be aware of the disaffection it would create in communities such as Locust Point, Homeland, Hampden, Waverly, Belair-Edison, Gardenville and Hamilton. It could drive a wedge into this city's politics, with regrettable consequences.

Mayor Schmoke had offered a moderate redistricting plan to increase black representation with minimal disruption of neighborhood borders. The mayor's map set up three majority-white districts and three majority-black districts, with whites having only a very slight edge in one of those districts (the Sixth in South Baltimore).

The Sun suggests another approach: councilmanic boundary lines with two majority-white districts (the First in Southeast Baltimore and the Third in Northeast Baltimore) and four majority-black districts, but with the Sixth having only a slight black majority. Such a plan would more accurately reflect the city's present population mix and encourage multi-racial tickets. It would mean fewer disruptions for neighborhoods and would stand a better chance in court.

The council's raucous and mean-spirited behavior this week illustrates what might lie ahead. Mrs. Clarke should work assiduously to cool tempers and come up with alternatives that do not needlessly uproot communities. This is a time for consensus-seeking and multi-racial harmony, not back-room power grabs.

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