Battle Lines Drawn

Democrats See Red Over Redistricting

July 14, 1991|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff writer

"Outrageous, clever and ridiculous" is how one County Council memberdescribed the redistricting plan county Republicans submitted to thecouncil last week.

The GOP-proffered map radically revises Columbia's districts.

The 3rd District, now confined to east Columbia, would cross U.S.29 to take in most of the west Columbia villages of Harper's Choice and Wilde Lake.

The 4th District, now encompassing west Columbia, would pick up the village of Owen Brown in east Columbia. It would lose the remainder of Wilde Lake and Harper's Choice to the 2nd District.

The reason for suggesting such radical changes, said Carol Arscott, chair of the county Republican Central Committee, is to create aminority district in keeping within "the dictates of the federal Voting Rights Act."

The act "mandates that equality of population andthe creation of minority districts" are of "primary importance," Arscott said.

"If Howard County's map is taken to court for any reason, this is the map the court will draw."

Arscott told the council her map increases the minority population in the 3rd District from 29percent to 33 percent and boosts the black population from 23 percent to 25 percent. The population variance among the five districts would be plus or minus 1.6 percent, she said.

After looking at Arscott's map, council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, said, "You're maintaining the court would uphold this for compactness? That's ridiculous."

Compactness is one of the criteria mandated by the county charter. The others are population equality, contiguity, common interest asa result of geography or history, and existing political boundaries.

The charter requires the council to redraw district boundary lines after each census.

Gray's remark about compactness was a criticism of the map's proposed 5th District. The GOP's map extends the county's largest geographic district -- the 5th -- which has been in the Republican camp since its creation in 1985.

Under Arscott's plan, the district would abut all five surrounding counties: Baltimore, Carroll, Montgomery, Prince George's and Anne Arundel.

It would also be contiguous to the other four council districts.

Arscott told Gray the creation of a minority district was "of primary importance" and that compactness and community interest are therefore given "lesserstature" in the Republican map.

"We drew the minority district, and everything else fell out from there," she said.

"I'm a little surprised that the No. 1 priority for Republicans is blacks, Asians and Hispanics," Gray responded.

"We're just trying to fulfill the law," Arscott said.

Council member Shane Pendergrass, D-1st, told Arscott that Republicans have developed "a very clever and interesting strategy" in presenting two maps, one "outrageous," the other "ridiculous."

The other map Pendergrass referred to was one devised by County Executive Charles I. Ecker, a Republican, and sent to the council in May. It all but cut Pendergrass out of her district.

Arscott told the council that the local Republican Central Committee "is pleased to endorse" Ecker's map in addition to its own, since "it is impossible to conceive of a map which would do a better job of respectingcommunities of interest."

But Paul R. Farragut, D-4th, disagreed,saying it was "very odd" for Ecker to extend his district so far east.

"My first reaction was that (the Ecker map) is irrational and illogical," Farragut said. His district includes Allview Estates east of U.S. 29 and all of west Columbia inside Route 108.

Republican Michael J. Deets, who ran unsuccessfully against Farragut last November, defended the Ecker proposal as "the fairest possible variation that can be achieved" and praised it for not "diluting minority strengthwhere strongest -- the 3rd District."

Local Democrats say privately that the GOP proposals are part of a national strategy to carve out districts especially for blacks. Because blacks historically vote overwhelmingly Democratic, grouping them would dilute Democratic strength elsewhere and give Republicans better odds of winning, the Democrats say.

Locally, Arscott's proposal would move Shane Pendergrass from the 1st District to the 4th District and would move Paul Farragut from the 4th to the 2nd.

Republican Darrel Drown would remain inthe 2nd District, forcing a possible 1994 runoff against Farragut. Drown, meanwhile, would retain most of the precincts that enabled him to defeat incumbent Democrat Angela Beltram by more than 2,000 votes last November.

Ecker's proposal would keep Pendergrass in the 1st District but would strip it of most of the precincts that voted for her last year and fill it with precincts that voted Republican.

Except for party partisans, Wednesday's 40-minute redistricting hearing drew little interest. Only 22 people, including council staffers, attended; seven testified.

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