Battle over plan for redistricting Essex heats up

June 24, 1991|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Baltimore County Bureau of The Sun

It promises to be Baltimore County's hottest political battle of the summer, complete with letter-writing politicians and groups chartering buses to ship supporters off to stormy meetings.

At stake is the political fate of Essex, a traditionally Democratic stronghold.

The Baltimore County Council is scheduled to come up with a proposal for redistricting by its July 1 meeting, and the most heated debate so far has focused on who should represent Essex, a blue-collar community in eastern Baltimore County.

The battle pits Councilman Vincent Gardina, D-5th, a computer program analyst elected last fall to represent Essex and Perry Hall, against Councilman Donald Mason, D-7th, a retired Bethlehem Steel worker elected to represent Dundalk.

The 1990 U.S. Census revealed that the population in Mr. Mason's district dropped from 92,114 to 85,265 over the past 10 years, and county officials say that with a countywide population of 692,134, each district should ideally have 98,876 residents.

So Mr. Mason must add about 13,000 residents to his district, which is bounded largely by the Back River, the Patapsco River, the Chesapeake Bay and the Baltimore City line.

For a solution, he looks north to Essex, which is part of a district that has grown over the past 10 years and must give up about 5,000 residents.

Mr. Mason wants to add to his district the communities that lie southwest of Rossville Boulevard, Stemmers Run Road and much of Back River Neck Road -- essentially the heart of Essex.

That would increase the population of his district from 85,200 to about 100,000, he said. In exchange, Mr. Gardina's 5th District would make up the losses by picking up Middle River communities that are now in the 6th District represented by Councilman William Howard IV.

Mr. Howard is a co-sponsor of Mr. Mason's plan.

"It's the logical place for me to go," said Mr. Mason. "Essex and Dundalkare blue-collar communities with a lot of the same problems and a lot of the same kinds of people and issues."

But Mr. Gardina argues that Mr. Mason's plan would split Essex in half, diluting its clout in Baltimore County politics.

Political clout translates into goodies like a revitalization plan for Eastern Boulevard, continued funding for the Essex Development Corp. and enhancements like the Essex Multi-Purpose Center, a building that offers citizens a wide range of services from building permits to social services, Mr. Gardina said.

Mr. Gardina said Mr. Mason should look to expand in a different direction -- for example, into the communities of Rosedale and Kenwood that lie just north of the 7th District along the Baltimore City line.

"Politically, his plan wouldn't hurt me, the number of Democrats line up the same for me either way. But it's just not good for Essex," Mr. Gardina said.

Ed Ziegenfuss, executive director of the Essex-Middle River Chamber of Commerce, said his group also opposes Mr. Mason's plan because it would mean a loss in the sense of identity built up over the past 80 years.

"We don't look at this as a political situation. It doesn't matter if it's Vince Gardina or Don Mason or Bob Jones as our representative, but we don't want to see the integrity of Essex-Middle River destroyed," Mr. Ziegenfuss said.

The state legislative delegation from Essex -- which will face its own redistricting headaches later this year -- also opposes the Mason plan.

Delegate E. Farrell Maddox, D-Baltimore County, chairman of the county delegation, wrote a letter last Tuesday to the County Council arguing that the plan would hurt Essex as a community.

"I've spoken to many people about this and they are devastated by the idea," he wrote.

A public hearing on the County Council's redistricting plan is set for July 30, and a vote for Aug. 5, said council Chairman Douglas B. Riley, R-4th.

Mr. Riley said council members may propose more than one plan for public discussion July 1 because of disputes among the seven members over where to draw the lines.

"It's turning out to be a very involved and very complicated process," he said.

Mr. Maddox predicted that as word of Mr. Mason's plan spreads, it will prompt increasing opposition from civic and political groups.

The Norris Democratic Club in Essex has pledged to bring "bus loads" of opponents to Mr. Mason's plan to the County Courthouse in Towson for the July 30 hearing, Mr. Maddox said.

"Everyone who hears about it is upset," he said. "You're talking about a community losing the representation it's had for the past 31 years."

But Mr. Mason says he is not dividing Essex, that the community will retain its sense of identity and increase its political clout.

"We're not splitting up Essex, we're taking all of it in to join Dundalk," he said.

He said he intends to make sure Essex remains a top priority in government and political circles, adding that much of the opposition is based on a "fear of the unknown."

"I don't know how a community can lose its political clout by having a change in the personality representing them, going from one councilman to another," Mr. Mason said.

He said that Democrats in Rosedale are just as concerned about Mr. Gardina's plan because it would mean dividing that community. He noted that under his plan, much of the Back River Neck peninsula will remain in Mr. Gardina's district.

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