Storm on Shore buffets McMillen's best hopes

Maryland newsmaker

October 06, 1991|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Sun Staff Correspondent

ANNAPOLIS -- He started out as one of the greatest victors in the congressional redistricting battle. But now Tom McMillen, a third-term Democrat from Anne Arundel County, is poised to be its greatest casualty, slashed by a double-edged sword of political expediency and geography.

Six weeks ago, an advisory committee carved him a prized congressional district that would have included his Anne Arundel County home turf and favorable Democratic areas in Baltimore and Howard counties. Representative Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md.-2nd, would have lost out by being paired in a district with freshman Representative Wayne T. Gilchrest, R-Md.-1st.

Then the General Assembly abruptly cast Mr. McMillen into an Eastern Shore district with Mr. Gilchrest. And last week, state lawmakers were trying to decide whether to make Mr. McMillen's political situation worse by shifting the bulk of the district's population to the distant -- and Republican-voting -- Shore.

In one final slap, an Eastern Shore senator called for changing the name of the proposed McMillen-Gilchrest 4th Congressional District to the 1st -- the current number of Mr. Gilchrest's district.

"I think the thing is far from finished," Mr. McMillen said Friday, clinging to hope that the advisory committee plan -- or something similar -- may be resurrected.

He may be right, although many participants in the redistricting process believe some type of McMillen-Gilchrest matchup is inevitable. The other alternatives appear too distasteful: trying to reach consensus on a new map or letting a court draw congressional districts that will last a decade.

Mr. McMillen found himself in this situation because the interests of other congressmen and other regions overpowered his own quest for a political haven.

His choicest Democratic areas of Prince George's County were set aside to help create a new majority-black district and a safe seat for Representative Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md.-5th, a House leader and member of the powerful Appropriations Committee widely seen as the state's most important U.S. representative.

Meanwhile, unlike other delegation members, Mr. McMillen was eager to drop other areas of his district, namely Republican-drifting Anne Arundel County. He was desperately seeking Democratic turf elsewhere.

But his fellow congressional Democrats were not ready to oblige, jTC hoping instead to keep those areas that would ensure their own return to Capitol Hill.

Acknowledging this last week, one leading Democrat in the House of Delegates decried the "arrogance" of the state's members of Congress, who he said placed their own careers above party, county and region.

Lack of allies hurts

Mr. McMillen was further hurt by his lack of allies in Annapolis. He had the strong support of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, and of the Anne Arundel County delegation. But there was little backing elsewhere, from the rank-and-file lawmakers to the governor's office.

The congressman, a 39-year-old former professional basketball player, served no apprenticeship in Annapolis, unlike Mr. Hoyer and Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md.-3rd, each of whom led a General Assembly chamber before heading to Congress -- Mr. Hoyer as president of the Senate and Mr. Cardin as speaker of the House.

Also, Mr. McMillen underestimated the power of Mrs. Bentley to help overturn the plan that placed her in a district with Mr. Gilchrest.

Mrs. Bentley emerged as one of the best poker players in the process, orchestrating petition drives, lining up votes, even helping to draft several of the redistricting proposals. As a result, Maryland's top Republican may end up with one of the best congressional districts in this heavily Democratic state.

"We never really considered the Helen Bentley card," conceded Jerry Grant, Mr. McMillen's top aide.

Finally, there was the stubborn refusal of Baltimore County and particularly the Eastern Shore to be chopped up. The first made a Bentley-Gilchrest matchup unlikely; the second may make the McMillen-Gilchrest matchup more to the Eastern Shore's liking.

The proposed McMillen-Gilchrest matchup was first broached during the spring by two of Mr. McMillen's Democratic colleagues, Mr. Hoyer and Mr. Cardin, who finally forged a consensus map among five of the eight congressional representatives.

Both lawmakers wanted to protect their own districts and keep the powerful and unpredictable Mrs. Bentley happy.

But Mr. McMillen balked, doubting that he could stay in office if his district were merged with a Shore district tending to vote Republican. He went solo, pushing a plan that would pit two Republicans -- Mrs. Bentley and Mr. Gilchrest -- against each other.

While a variation of that plan passed the Senate, a competing one passed the House that would forge a district pairing Mr. McMillen and Mrs. Bentley.

The House plan won the backing of House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, because it would leave his native Shore largely intact to elect its own member of Congress.

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