The L Question

September 25, 1991

An unlikely alliance of city Republicans and the local NAACP is pushing for voter approval of Question L on November's ballot, which would create 18 single-member City Council districts to replace the current six, three-member districts. It's an intriguing idea, but by trying to ram the measure through, its supporters are practically ensuring it won't get the consideration it deserves.

For one thing, the GOP could be at least as interested in gaining partisan advantage as in improving local government. It pushed the proposal despite the City Council's decision last spring to hold off after Mayor Schmoke argued that the effect of this year's redistricting couldn't be known until after the election, and that such sweeping reform deserved more careful study.

The city GOP, however, refused to halt a petition drive to put a single-member district plan before the voters. The drive was ultimately successful and, as a result, Question L will appear on November's ballot.

Although both whites and blacks in Baltimore traditionally have voted overwhelmingly Democratic, the GOP may hope that by carving out a relatively small number of largely affluent, overwhelmingly white districts the party could increase its chances of electing Republicans to the City Council.

That strategy would be in line with a nationwide GOP trend to support redistricting changes that create "safe" black legislative and congressional seats by concentrating black voters in segregated districts -- thus leaving the remaining districts "whiter" and, presumably, more receptive to Republicans.

Apparently the NAACP has accepted the notion that single-member districts would increase the likelihood of electing a black majority to the council. Yet its marriage to this GOP initiative may be shortsighted. The racial balance on the council, after all, has already begun to shift as a result of this year's TC redistricting changes, and there's no guarantee single-member districts would significantly accelerate that process.

Meanwhile there is real danger that carving out so many new districts could lead to a Balkanization of the council, with each member representing such narrow, parochial interests that the body as a whole would become unworkable. One need only look to Chicago's notoriously contentious City Council as example of such governmental gridlock -- a paralysis begun, not coincidentally, at just the moment that city elected its first black mayor.

These are complex issues, and we would prefer they first be given a more thorough hearing in the context of the charter revision commission rather than in the rough and tumble of a general election campaign. But since the GOP has forced the issue, let the debate begin as soon as possible so voters can have all the information they will need on election day in November.

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