If you intend to testify on the congressional redistricting plan tonight in Annapolis, go early: Rep. Helen D. Bentley's supporters may grab all the seats. "We'll have eight or nine busloads of people," said Bentley, R-2nd.
Bentley said her supporters also will submit thousands of "petition-type letters" expressing opposition to the proposed redistricting plan.
Bentley is furious over the plan because it would eliminate her district, apportion Baltimore County into five districts, and force her to run against fellow Republican Wayne T. Gilchrest, R-1st, or take on a Democrat in largely new territory.
The plan was proposed Aug. 21 by the Governor's Redistricting Advisory Committee, which will hear the public's views on it beginning at 5 p.m. in the legislative services building near the State House.
The five-member panel, dominated by Democrats, can alter the plan before the legislature takes it up in special session Sept. 25.
Sources close to the panel said that at least minor changes would be made to benefit Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-3rd, but Cardin is seeking more drastic revisions that the panel is reluctant to approve.
Cardin has helped persuade Mayor Kurt Schmoke and city members of the House of Delegates to oppose the panel's plan.
The city's legislative representatives met Friday and voted to support a substitute plan that would largely preserve the districts of Cardin, Bentley and Kweisi Mfume, D-7th, at the expense of Rep. Tom McMillen, D-4th, whose Anne Arundel County-based district would be joined with part of the Eastern
Schmoke said he would send the panel a letter expressing his opposition, according to Del. Frank D. Boston, head of the city's legislative delegation.
Baltimore County members of the House of Delegates also voted Friday to oppose the plan.
Del. Farrell Maddox, dean of the county House delegation, said the proposed plan "divides Baltimore County too much."
"The plan just seemed to destroy the integrity of Baltimore County, going from three congressional people to five, especially at the eastern end, where they'd be represented by three alone," he said.
The opposition of legislators from the city and Baltimore County, combined with expected opposition from at least some legislators in Harford and Howard counties, gives critics hope that the plan will be changed.
Although Bentley lacks clout with the panel, she has an ally in Gov. William Donald Schaefer, a long-time friend who is unhappy with the plan and has said he may submit his own.
Schaefer, who would like to keep Bentley in a district that includes the Port of Baltimore, has not said whether he'll veto a plan he doesn't like. The legislature must approve the plan by a three-fifths majority.
Meanwhile, the legislature's attorney, assistant attorney general Robert A. Zarnoch, has concluded that the proposed plan is constitutional under the state and federal constitutions.
In a letter being submitted to the legislature today, Zarnoch said "a constitutional challenge to it would not succeed."
Zarnoch, addressing some criticism of the plan, said there is no constitutional requirement that "congressional districts be compact and contiguous or honor political subdivision lines."
On the subject of gerrymandering -- in Maryland's case, rigging boundaries to the disadvantage of Republicans -- Zarnoch said U.S. Supreme Court rulings do impose "some restraints," but none that would affect the proposed plan.
However, Republican leaders have vowed to sue if they're not satisfied with the plan approved by the legislature.