The Gang of Five struck with sudden fury. In its wake, this
pentagon of politicians left one former gang member, a tall, lanky fellow, stranded and possibly mortally wounded. Two other colleagues, while publicly aloof from the gang, gave silent assent to the deed. Survival makes for strange bedfellows.
This is not a scene from post-Maoist China but from present-day Maryland. The subject is America's version of political cannibalism -- redistricting. Every ten years, the nation's congressional boundaries are re-drawn to compensate for population changes. The scramble among office holders to gain advantage often turns into a stampede.
In Maryland, five members of the House delegation -- Helen Bentley, Ben Cardin, Steny Hoyer, Beverly Byron and Kweisi Mfume -- have formed an Incumbents' Benevolent Protective Society dedicated to the proposition that they ought to be sheltered from defeat by drawing favorable district boundaries. Two other incumbents -- Republicans Wayne Gilchrest and Connie Morella -- are associate members of this society but reluctant to say so for political reasons. Thus, the Gang of Five is actually a Gang of Seven.
Left in the cold is incumbent Tom McMillen, the former basketball star. At nearly seven feet, he towers over his colleagues, but on this issue he is the incredible shrinking man.
Democrat McMillen isn't disliked by the other seven. Nor is he being ornery in charting an independent course. He'd be glad to make this a Gang of Eight. But the census numbers and the Voting Rights Act virtually dictate one incumbent must go.
Rapid growth in the black population of Prince George's County means that a new minority district has to be created to meet the criteria of the Voting Rights Act. Since Maryland's population didn't increase enough to merit a ninth congressional seat, the new minority district must be carved out of someone's hide.
Complicating matters is the consensus among state political leaders that they have to protect Steny Hoyer, the delegation's most valuable player, who now represents most of Prince George's County. When the minority district is drawn -- probably by looping around the Washington beltway through Prince George's and Montgomery counties -- Mr. Hoyer's base is likely to shift into Southern Maryland and east into the neighboring McMillen district.
As proposed by the G-7, the Baltimore and Washington areas will each be assured of three congressional seats. The Eastern Shore will be kept intact; so will Western Maryland. Mr. McMillen's current district will be divided three ways: Mr. Hoyer will gain the Prince George's portions; Mr. Cardin will pick up the Howard County and some north Anne Arundel County segments, and Mr. Gilchrest's district, based on the Eastern Shore, will cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and consume a big chunk of Anne Arundel.
The new First District will have close to half its voters in Anne Arundel and half on the Eastern Shore. Most politicos believe this favors Republican Gilchrest, who can expect a heavy turnout east of the bridge. He also will benefit from growing Republican strength in Arundel.
Mr. McMillen, though, still could win. He can count on Democratic backing in Arundel and pockets of Democratic strength on the shore. He is awash in campaign funds and will far outspend Mr. Gilchrest in the sprawling district.
Plus, he has allies in pushing for an alternate redistricting plan that would cost one of two Republicans -- Mr. Gilchrest or Mrs. Bentley -- their seat by merging their districts, while Mr. McMillen would retain much of his present district. It is an approach favored by highly partisan Democrats, such as state party chairman Nathan Landow and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.
But it won't fly with Gov. William Donald Schaefer or with House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell. Mr. Schaefer won't jeopardize Mrs. Bentley's incumbency: she is a key link for Maryland to the White House and a good friend of the governor. Mr. Mitchell doesn't want to see the shore district merged with a Harford-Baltimore County segment that could wind up controlling the First. He's much more comfortable with fellow Kent County resident Wayne Gilchrest than with Rhodes scholar Tom McMillen.
There is a regional dispute, too. Mr. McMillen is regarded as more Washington-oriented than Baltimore-oriented. Were his plan accepted, and Mr. Gilchrest defeated Mrs. Bentley, the Baltimore area would be left with only two primary voices in Congress. That is something the governor won't permit; nor do the other seven delegation members think it is a wise idea.
Given the partisan nature of redistricting, it is surprising the G-7 came up with such an even-handed proposal.
The Democrats could easily have skewered incumbent Republicans. Instead, they opted for a plan that leaves one district up for grabs, balances the desires of the Baltimore and Washington regions, creates a second minority seat and retains the geographic integrity of the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland.
Of course, those in the group also made sure to take care of themselves. The Incumbents' Benevolent Protective Society lived up to its name.
Barry Rascovar is deputy editor of the editorial pages of The Sun. His column on Maryland politics appears here each Sunday.