Redistricting and the So-Called Leadership


October 27, 1991|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Redistricting brings out the worst in our politicians. It certainly did in Annapolis. No one emerged from the prolonged battle over drawing congressional lines with dignity.

It was an ugly performance that could be repeated -- with increasing bitterness -- in the clash over re-drawing lines for the state legislature.

No wonder the public has lost faith in its elected leaders. They don't lead any more. Instead, they posture and cater to special interests or to their own political interests. The public be damned -- as it was in the re-districting process.

Two men made the decisions, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell. Neither man has much affinity with the Baltimore area. Both are from rural parts of the state -- Mr. Miller from Clinton in southern Prince George's County and Mr. Mitchell from Kent County on the Eastern Shore. They lack a broad, statewide vision.

This showed in the map-making fight. Instead of opting for one of several sensible plans offered by a solid majority of Maryland's congressional delegation, the two legislators came up with their own map that was so cockeyed it provoked a furor and a threatened veto from the governor.

Among other things, this version would have sliced and diced Baltimore County into five pieces, and created a "rowboat district" for Rep. Tom McMillen between northern Anne Arundel County and blue-collar Dundalk and Essex in Baltimore County.

When the protests mounted, the two legislators backed down. They seemed to settle on a common-sense approach suggested by state planners that would respect county lines and community interests. The only problem: it placed all or part of Cecil County in Rep. Helen Bentley's district. Mr. Mitchell would not let this happen. The only issue of burning concern for him was keeping the Eastern Shore in one piece. He refused to budge.

At the same time, Mr. Miller wanted his concerns met: safe Democratic seats for Rep. Steny Hoyer and Mr. McMillen. The conflicting pressures from congressional incumbents forced map-makers to twist the districts like pretzels. Once one incumbent was satisfied, another would be up in arms, requiring rejuggling of the boundaries for all eight districts.

What eventually emerged was worse than the maps Messrs. Miller and Mitchell had nearly agreed on a few weeks earlier. New wrinkles were added: Anne Arundel County was drawn and quartered; Brooklyn and Curtis Bay in the city were effectively disenfranchised on the congressional level; and Mrs. Bentley, not Mr. McMillen, ended up with a "speedboat district" linking an isolated enclave of wealthy Republicans in northern Anne Arundel with her Harford-Baltimore County district.

Yet these boundary lines fail to achieve the intended results. Mr. Hoyer's new district leaves him open to a conservative %o Democratic challenge in the primary and a strong Republican challenge next November. Mr. McMillen's political viability is marginal in the new 1st District, though by the end of the decade Anne Arundel, not the Eastern Shore, may be the dominant force. Even the minority district drawn in the Prince George's-Montgomery suburbs of Washington was designed so poorly that a white Democratic liberal could win that seat.

Looking for victors in this political mayhem, the most obvious are Mrs. Bentley and Rep. Benjamin Cardin, both of whom showed remarkable clout in Annapolis.

Mrs. Bentley rallied Gov. William Donald Schaefer, the GOP and even Baltimore and Harford County Democrats to her side.

Mr. Cardin, who presided over the House for eight years, at first infuriated Mr. Mitchell with his insistent lobbying. But he lowered his profile and continued to persuade delegates to draw district lines he favored. In the end, Mr. Cardin prevailed, despite Mr. Mitchell's pique.

On the losing side, the worst defeats were suffered by Arundel politicians, who are threatening a court suit that might negate these maps; Mr. McMillen, who sustained a life-threatening political wound; Messrs. Miller and Mitchell, who came off looking like inept politicos, and the governor, who lost ground by opting to play a passive role when legislators were desperately seeking leadership on this question.

Now comes the final phase of the redistricting exercise: new boundaries for 47 legislative districts. Based on the stink created last week in Baltimore County over the incumbents' maps, we've not seen the worst clashes yet. It could turn into a vicious donnybrook, affecting other legislation, even the state's No. 1 concern -- balancing the budget either by trimming another half-billion dollars in spending or (horror of horrors!) raising taxes.

What should have been an easily resolved internal political dispute got out of hand. We may be feeling the repercussions for years.

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

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