Where Redistricting Went Wrong

BARRY RASCOVAR

September 08, 1991|By BARRY RASCOVAR

What an abysmal mess the Governor's Redistricting Advisory Committee is in. If it proceeds along its present path, only bad things are likely to happen. If it changes direction, the panel might not have any better luck. It is the classic Catch-22 predicament.

How did this happen? William Donald Schaefer won't not like to hear this, but much of the present redistricting quagmire is directly related to the governor's actions -- and his non-actions -- leading up to the 4-1 vote in favor of new congressional maps that left Baltimore County chopped and diced into five easily consumable pieces.

Mr. Schaefer may be the first governor in modern Maryland history to appoint a runaway gubernatorial committee on such an important issue. His inattention to the committee's composition and its deliberations have come back to haunt him.

He chose as chairman Benjamin L. Brown, a likable former judge but hardly a vigorous and persuasive leader. He also placed on the panel two non-legislators whose allegiance is not to him. Add in two powerful legislators, House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller -- both of whom have tattered relations with the governor -- and it was clear this panel would be beyond Mr. Schaefer's control.

Nor did the governor bother to seek out expert advice on redistricting. No one who had been through previous state redistricting battles and understood the complexities of the task joined the Schaefer entourage to help guide the process so it favored the governor.

To make matters worse, Mr. Schaefer refused to let the committee know what he wanted them to do. They received no guidance on what the governor felt would be acceptable congressional maps. In fact, Mr. Schaefer's only signals were conflicting ones: every time a congressman or legislator met with him about redistricting, the governor gave assurances he backed that individual's wishes.

With the governor's advisory panel left to its own devices, the group ended up giving Mr. Schaefer the wrong advice. Baltimore County was butchered into five weak segments; the governor's best friend in Congress, Rep. Helen Bentley, was gerrymandered out of her district; lines were drawn to split neighborhoods and communities in such a way as to seem intentional.

Mr. Schaefer's problems in Annapolis are interwoven. His disputes with legislators in one area impinge on other conflicts. This happened with redistricting.

In his on-going feud with Messrs. Miller and Mitchell, the governor held up public works projects until legislators wrote him notes requesting the projects. This was his way of demanding obeisance. But the two legislative leaders objected to the Schaefer ploy. A nasty tug of war ensured with plenty of threats and accusations on both sides.

Finally, the legislature's designated member of the Board of Public Works, Lucille Maurer, was dispatched to seek a compromise before the two sides declared all-out war. A truce, of sorts, was declared. But not before an aide to the governor had accosted Mr. Mitchell, demanding that he back down from (( his position (she was sternly told to get out of his office), and the governor sent another of his misguided memos to Mr. Mitchell accusing him of hiding behind Mrs. Maurer's skirts in the dispute.

That, it now appears, was the straw that broke Mr. Mitchell's tolerance for gubernatorial shenanigans.

While all this tomfoolery was going on, the redistricting panel was trying to find a way out of its maze. Mr. Miller was the guiding force on the committee. He allied himself with Rep. Tom McMillen in constructing an oddly shaped Democratic map that gives Mr. McMillen what he wants and also gives Mr. Mitchell what he wanted most -- a unified Eastern Shore within a single district.

Yet the Miller-McMillen plan still didn't appeal to committee members because of the way it cavalierly mangled the Baltimore area. The panel was deadlocked. But the governor's feuding with Mr. Mitchell, and especially his letter about hiding behind Mrs. Maurer, infuriated the proud House speaker and pushed him into an alliance with Mr. Miller. It was payback time.

What better way to punish the governor than to gerrymander his favorite member of Congress out of her district and to manhandle the Baltimore area?

The strong reaction against the plan may yet persuade the panel to seek another, less controversial approach tp congressional redistricting. Still, a message has been delivered to Mr. Schaefer. Clearly, the two legislative leaders have flexed their muscles in .. this redistricting battle -- and they have won.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editor of the editorial pages of The Sun

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