Every ten years, politicians get to demolish the jigsaw maps their predecessors constructed and devise new puzzle games of their own. The process is known as redistricting. It is both a simple and complex undertaking, but since politicians control the levers on this one, the complexities overwhelm the simplicities.
For the pols, redistricting is a matter of survival. Redrawing lines could mean the difference between winning in 1994 and losing because some of your best precincts were placed in someone else's district. Or as is likely to happen in Baltimore City, entire districts may disappear.
No wonder, then, that the governor and legislative leaders got downright testy in discussing how to approach redistricting. They finally have reached agreement: legislators will control the joint committee.
The first task is the easiest -- congressional redistricting. Since 00 there are only eight districts, it shouldn't be too difficult to re-trace the lines to match 1990 census figures. That's how the outsider views the process. Politicians see it differently. The decisions for them will be excruciating.
Should a majority-black district be created inside the Washington beltway? If so, which incumbent gets squeezed out? Will the Republican-dominated courts tolerate a redistricting plan that intentionally eliminates a Republican-held seat and replaces it with a majority-black, Democratic seat?
How do you re-draw the lines around Baltimore City? Can Maryland's MVP (most valuable politico) in Congress, Steny Hoyer, be protected? How do you keep the Eastern Shore in a single district?
As is always the case, those making the decisions are more interested in protecting the incumbents and the majority party than being fair. So look for Republicans to yell loud and long after the maps are unveiled.
That exercise is merely a warm-up, though, for the tougher puzzle that lies ahead: re-drawing the 47 General Assembly districts.
Census figures indicate that Baltimore City will lose two full districts (two senators and six delegates) while Montgomery County will add nearly a full district. Baltimore County could lose one or two delegates. Howard County should add two delegates. Prince George's will lose a delegate but Charles County has enough population now to have its own state senator.
Compounding the redistricting problems are provisions of the Voting Rights Act that favor creation of majority-black districts. How the Reagan-Bush courts will interpret the law could negate that obligation, but the pressure will be on legislators to give minorities a fair shake. That could be especially ticklish in Prince George's, where Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller -- who is on the redistricting committee -- and black leaders aren't on the best of terms these days.
Baltimore City and Baltimore County have a mutual interest in creating new districts that cross their boundary lines. Such moves could limit the city's loss to one senator and the county's loss to perhaps a delegate.
Sen. Barbara Hoffman's northwest city district could stretch into Pikesville. Sen. Clarence Blount's western city district could take the southern part of the present Hoffman district (Ten Hills) and portions of Woodlawn and Liberty Road in the county. Sen. John Pica's northeast city district could move north into the Rodgers Forge area, while Sen. Tom Bromwell's northeast county district could move south along Belair and Harford roads into the city to buttress his wobbly Democrat base in the county.
Even the secessionist wishes of Curtis Bay and Brooklyn residents could be granted by placing those city neighborhoods in Phillip Jimeno's Anne Arundel district.
These fights alone will be arduous. Trying to fit all 47 senate districts into the puzzle could be a nightmare. The job is easier, thanks to the ubiquitous computer, but that also makes it a snap for every incumbent to draw his or her own map that increases the incumbent's chances of re-election.
If you're wondering what all this has to do with real-life problems and citizen concerns, you've hit the nail on the head if you said nothing. This is a fight among politicians. Constituents need not apply. The decisions will be based entirely on what incumbents think is best for themselves. Period.
And yet much of the General Assembly's time and energy will be focused on this problem for the next nine months.
Tax reform will have to wait until congressional redistricting is handled. President Miller cannot concentrate on reining in his rambunctious Judicial Proceedings Committee chairman until he straightens out his political boundary lines in Prince George's. Montgomery's senators and delegates can't focus on more transportation funds to relieve road gridlock until they carve up the county's new district to their satisfaction.
It is all crass and brazen. It is politics at its most selfish and manipulative. Redistricting brings out the worst in every endangered office holder.
But then, it's always been that way in this country. American politics is not for the shy and retiring. Especially when self-preservation is at stake.
Barry Rascovar is deputy editor of the editorial pages of The Sun.