Rep. Tom McMillen stewed silently while fellow Democrats in the Maryland congressional delegation tried unsuccessfully to carve up his district and save one for a Republican, Rep. Helen D. Bentley.
But his frustration boiled over publicly yesterday as he prepared to meet with Gov. William Donald Schaefer to discuss the proposed congressional redistricting plan.
Telephoning a reporter before the meeting, McMillen, D-4th, complained that his colleagues in Congress had conspired with Bentley, R-2nd, although they ultimately lost out when a state redistricting panel proposed a plan that would largely protect McMillen's district and eliminate hers.
"Helen Bentley has done more damage to the Democratic Party than anyone else in the state and here we're creating a sinecure for her," he said, referring to his colleagues' efforts. "Are we nuts?"
McMillen said he took this message to Schaefer, a Democrat who is friends with Bentley and is unhappy with the proposed plan. McMillen said Schaefer, despite his opposition, did not rule out accepting a plan unfavorable to her.
McMillen also challenged public statements made previously by Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-3rd, who has insisted his goal was to ensure the integrity of existing districts and provide the immediate Baltimore area with representation from three members of Congress.
"I can prove that Ben was the first to abandon Baltimore," McMillen asserted, referring to a plan he said Cardin secretly submitted for consideration then abandoned. "He was the first to split Baltimore in terms of the plan he submitted."
Cardin immediately denied that, saying McMillen was "just wrong and factually in error."
The panel's proposed plan would keep Baltimore City in two districts, Cardin's 3rd and Rep. Kweisi Mfume's 7th. But it would split Baltimore County into five congressional districts, including the 3rd and 7th.
McMillen's statements reflect the bitter feelings generated by redistricting.
McMillen has been at odds with the four other Maryland Democrats in the U.S. House, who submitted their own plan, and they in turn have fought with the Democratic state legislative leaders who effectively control the process. Until yesterday, however, most of the anger remained private.
Conflict was inevitable because Democrats wanted to create a new minority-dominated district around Prince George's County. They also wanted to protect the incumbent representative of that county, Steny H. Hoyer, D-5th, by creating a new district for him out of Southern Maryland and parts of Prince George's and Howard counties.
Doing that required eliminating one incumbent's district by merging it with another.
The redistricting panel adopted the approach favored by McMillen and his political godfather, state Democratic Party Chairman Nathan Landow. It mulched Bentley's district into the others and put her home in the 1st District, which is dominated by the Eastern Shore and represented by fellow Republican Wayne T. Gilchrest.
The panel rejected group proposals put forward by Cardin, Hoyer, Mfume, and Rep. Beverly Byron, D-6th, which would have gutted McMillen's Anne Arundel County-based district and forced him to run against Gilchrest in a district that encompasses areas on both sides of Chesapeake Bay.
McMillen said he told Schaefer there's a perception that he, the titular head of the Democratic Party, wants to save the career of Bentley -- a Republican.
"The governor wants to do what is right for the Democratic Party in the state," McMillen said following an Annapolis meeting he requested with Schaefer. "He has problems with the plan. But he did not say he was opposed to a Bentley-Gilchrest fight."
He said he also told Schaefer that "if this [the plan] goes down in flames," a court could decide to keep the eight districts roughly the same, but add black precincts to Hoyer's district to give it a black majority. That could cost Hoyer, who is white, the seat, McMillen warned.
Cardin, meanwhile, took McMillen to task for speaking out as he did.
"I think it's a mistake for us to argue partisan politics in public," he said.