Redistricting politics

August 23, 1991

Redistricting is by nature a partisan exercise, with the party in power attempting to redraw the lines for what it believes will be its own political benefit. So it should surprise no one that the state redistricting panel of four Democrats and one Republican came up with a plan which eviscerates Maryland's 2nd congressional district -- a seat held by Rep. Helen Bentley, titular head of the state GOP.

Nor should it come as any surprise that the plan leaves the Baltimore area with one less representative, while the Washington suburbs gain a new district: The 1990 Census data show that while Maryland's population increased over the last decade, it did not grow enough to warrant the creation of another House seat. So the task largely became a matter of carving out a new, majority-black district in the growing D.C. suburbs where the population increased mostly among black residents.

There are, of course, several ways in which the lines could have been redrawn. But partisans in both parties who view the committee's work as a plan to put a Democratic lock on the majority of Maryland's House seats may be dead wrong.

The new 5th District, crafted as a safe seat for Democrat Steny Hoyer, includes a portion of Howard County, where the GOP is growing rapidly, as well as parts of three southern Maryland counties where Republican registration is also increasing. The proposal also tinkers with 3rd District boundaries, forcing liberal Democratic incumbent Ben Cardin to draw support from blue-collar areas in Baltimore County that are now loyal Bentley territory.

Moreover, if this plan becomes law, the then-deposed Bentley may challenge Democrat Tom McMillen for the 4th district seat, which he barely won in 1988. The proposed 1st and 8th districts are virtually locked up by the GOP, and there is plenty of room for a fight in the 6th, which historically has been a moderate Republican district and which now is represented by conservative Democrat Beverly Byron.

If Schaefer rejects the committee's plan and proposes another to the General Assembly, there's little chance state lawmakers, with whom he has been almost continually feuding, will be receptive. The governor, who is "very unhappy" with the proposal is, after all, an ally of Bentley's. Yet his own committee came up with the plan to wipe out her district and fracture her home base. Beyond power politics, therefore, the redistricting proposal also suggests that Governor Schaefer could be losing political clout.

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