City Council split not finished, GOP says

March 29, 1991|By Michael Ollove

The most vaunted promise made by the backers of Baltimore's new redistricting plan was that it would vastly increase the political representation of the city's minorities.

When it comes to the city's most ignored minority -- the Republican Party -- it is probably a hollow claim.

True, GOP officials say, the new plan reshapes Baltimore's councilmanic districts in a way that gives blacks solid majorities in all but one district. But, because the plan retains multiple-member districts, says David R. Blumberg, chairman of the Baltimore Republican Party, it prolongs a fundamentally unfair system that will leave portions of the city underrepresented on the City Council.

Not incidentally, the redistricting plan doesn't promise the GOP a better chance of capturing seats on the council, none of which have been occupied by a Republican since 1942.

"We don't think it works," Mr. Blumberg said.

Consequently, city Republicans, outnumbered 9-to-1 in voter registration by their Democratic rivals, are mounting a drive to place on the November ballot a referendum that would require Baltimore to adopt single-member districts by 1995.

To get on the ballot, they would have to collect 10,000 signatures by Aug. 12.

The Republicans are also considering a federal lawsuit. If they were successful on either front, Baltimore would abandon its present system in which three council members are elected from each of the six districts. In a single-member district format, the city would be divided into 18 districts, each electing its own council representative.

"We think this will be do-able, fun and, hey, it's also the right thing," Mr. Blumberg said.

In promoting single-member districts, the Republicans are trumpeting a political cause often adopted by minority groups in the United States in the last 25 years.

The argument is that political minorities -- blacks, Hispanics and now Republicans -- cannot fairly compete for council seats in multiple-member districts and particularly in at-large systems in which all voters in a city vote on all council seats. In those systems, the voting districts are so large that even though a minority might dominate particular precincts or wards, it cannot overcome the overall majority group and elect their preferred candidates.

In recent years, an increasing number of cities -- either voluntarily or as a result of court suits -- have adopted single-member districts that create voting areas small enough to make minority populations the majority in their districts.

Baltimore is one of the few large American cities and the only political subdivision in Maryland that does not have single-member districts.

The Republicans' referendum effort this year will be a reprise of the battle the GOP waged seven years ago, when voters rejected the measure by nearly a 3-to-2 ratio.

This time, Mr. Blumberg said, the party is hoping to tap into lingering unhappiness over the redistricting plan, which the City Council and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke adopted last week.

The debate enraged certain neighborhoods that were switched to new districts and some councilmen, one of whom quipped that he'd need a helicopter to get to some new, remote areas of his district.

Mr. Blumberg said he believes the referendum can attract support from whites upset about the dwindling influence of the old-line political machines in a redistricted Baltimore and from blacks who still face the task of building political organizations before they can take advantage of the redistricting.

He may be overly optimistic. Council members on both sides of the redistricting fight said this week that they opposed the idea of single-member districts.

"I don't like it," said the 3rd District's Wilbur E. "Bill" Cunningham, who strongly opposed the redistricting plan. "I think the council would be much too fragmented.

"We would develop 18 little fiefdoms, with people too interested in their own small areas as opposed to the city as a whole, and it would be too difficult to reach a consensus as whole."

Carl Stokes, a 2nd District councilman and one of the architects of the redistricting plan, opposes single-member districts for much the same reasons.

"It's just too parochial," he said. "It wouldn't allow for coalition-building and it would allow a small, politically active group in a district to control that seat forever."

Anthony J. Ambridge, another 2nd District councilman, said the council adopted the Stokes plan in the first place because members believed Mayor Schmoke's proposal would not withstand a federal lawsuit that could result in court-imposed single-member districting.

"We felt we had to do something about the mayor's plan because we thought it was unfair and would lead to single-member districts," Mr. Ambridge said.

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