From Salamanders to Doughnuts: Redistricting Reshaped

June 02, 1991|By C. FRASER SMITH | C. FRASER SMITH,Fraser Smith covers Maryland politics for The Sun.

To a political discipline named for the supple and vaguely sinister amphibian, the 1990s bring a kinder and gentler labeling based on junk food.

A former governor of Massachusetts named Gerry perfected the technique of drawing election district lines so erratically that they were likened to salamanders -- hence gerrymandering. These maps allowed the politically powerful to protect themselves with cushions of sympathetic voters. They could help their friends and punish their enemies.

The manipulative impulse lives, no doubt. But the shapes are changing. Some of the new districts will resemble doughnuts more than salamanders. And some of the map makers will have && different labels as well. Republicans and blacks will be important players -- and they may well be unofficial teammates -- in Maryland and elsewhere.

In the past, parties in power have had their way in such matters because they had more exclusive use of information gathered by their minions. They also had the personnel to crunch numbers and prepare maps.

This was before computers which now permit almost anyone to obtain the data and prepare a map. Court decisions based on the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and its subsequent amendments have brought judges and the U.S. Department of Justice into the act as well.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer's special five-member commission on redistricting met for the first time last week and scheduled 13 public hearings at which citizens may offer testimony -- and even maps of their own.

And in Ocean City yesterday, the Maryland Republican Party was to offer its version of the ideal new congressional district map.

New districts must be drawn in Maryland and all the other states this year to reapportion the population in accordance with the growth and decline of population as documented by the 1990 census. The target population of each congressional district in Maryland is 597,683 (one-eighth of the 1990 population of the state). Baltimore's Seventh District is more than 100,000 residents short. The Eighth District -- of which Montgomery County is the core -- stands more 70,000 residents over the goal at 669,764.

Each effort to reallocate the population for one district, of course, has implications for all the others. Where in Baltimore County, for example, will the district mappers go to add population for the Seventh District? Will they borrow from the Second -- and where will the Second be pushed? Can this be done without diluting black strength in the Seventh, which would be a violation of the Voting Rights Act?

Democrats retain line-drawing clout in Maryland and elsewhere by virtue of their dominance in legislatures and governors' mansions.

But the surging GOP has found new sources of power for redistricting thanks to its late party chairman, Lee Atwater, who saw how his party could reach out to blacks in a way that would undercut the Democrats' traditional redistricting momentum. In Louisiana, Illinois, Texas, Maryland and other states, pressure from the courts creates a rare opportunity for the GOP to make real world alliances with the last reliable bulwark of Democratic Party loyalty, the black voter.

The plan prepared by Maryland Republicans focuses on the possibility of creating a new black district in Prince George's County. It will almost certainly dilute Democratic voting strength in at surrounding districts -- where Republican candidates could suddenly have a better chance to win.

"This is our chance to try and level the playing field," says Clayton Yeutter, chairman of the Republican National Committee. Mr. Yeutter was careful to observe that the tilted playing field could be leveled for minority group members as well -- and perhaps in league with the GOP.

"There's an opportunity now," Mr. Yeutter told the National Federation of Republican Women recently, "to right all those wrongs and get fair and rational representation in the country in the coming decade."

The day of the doughnut is dawning.

After the 1980 census, Maryland's Seventh District became the center of a classic, although incomplete, doughnut -- blacks in the urban center, whites in surrounding areas. To withstand a court challenge, the Seventh Congressional District, based in Baltimore, was drawn so as to encompass a population that was more than 73 percent black in the 1980 census.

The Third District reaches around the city from Pikesville on the northwest to Columbia on the Southwest. Since the loop was not closed, some have described it as the "toilet seat district."

The Third owes its shape to the requirements of drawing the Seventh and to various decisions about how voters should be allocated between the Second and the Third. Democrats drew these lines for the most part -- and some but not all of the Democratic incumbents were protected by the decision-makers. Reliable segments of Democrats in Essex, Dundalk and Pikesville were divvied up between Democrats.

A partial result of that line drawing was the defeat of former

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