Redistricting pie slices Democrats' power

October 28, 1991|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- The day after his House of Delegates barely passed its first attempt at redrawing Maryland's congressional districts last month, the house speaker, a Democrat, sent an arrangement of fall flowers to the Republican minority leader.

The victory margin had been four -- and 17 of the votes were cast by Republicans.

zTC Hence, the usually dominant House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, found himself suddenly beholden to the once-ignored minority leader, Delegate Ellen R. Sauerbrey, R-Baltimore County.

And this was just a hint of the new Republican clout. When the General Assembly reached final agreement on redistricting, the map of Maryland politics had changed yet again -- and not in the way political history would have suggested.

States such as Maryland, run predominantly by one party, draw election districts that are favorable to their party's candidates. Theoretically, the voters have given them that power by electing them in large numbers. Although they complain bitterly, even Maryland Republicans do not expect otherwise.

With a Democratic governor, two Democrats in the U.S. Senate, five in the House of Representatives and a solid majority in both houses of the General Assembly, incumbent members of Congress from Maryland should have been smiling at the cakewalk in front of them when redistricting was complete.

But new Republican voting strength in Maryland, plus the Voting Rights Act, which requires creation of minority districts when possible, left the new map looking less Democratic than partisans on both sides expected.

Many of the state's most reliably Democratic voters fell into three districts, leaving the other districts with more Republicans and better opportunities for Republican office seekers.

The degree to which the political landscape changed is illustrated in several ways:

* Despite feverish efforts to protect them, the new congressional district map appears to give Republican challengers better-than-expected chances against two incumbent Democrats: Representative Steny H. Hoyer, D-5th,and Representative Tom McMillen, D-4th.

At the same time, the new boundaries left incumbent Republicans Helen Delich Bentley, 2nd, and Constance A. Morella, 8th, more firmly entrenched in districts closely resembling the ones they represent now. Both Republicans, under the usual rules, might have been rather rudely pushed around in favor of Democrats.

* The third Republican incumbent, freshman Wayne T. Gilchrest, 1st, will run in a district that includes much of his current base, plus parts of Anne Arundel County that have elected Republican representatives in the past.

Mr. McMillen, a three-term incumbent, was drawn into a district with Mr. Gilchrest. He was left to decide which of the new districts he will run in. He must be careful to avoid the look of a political shopper, jilting his current constituency for another -- though he surely feels a bit jilted himself.

The state's Democratic Party chairman, Nathan Landow, tried to put the best face on the situation.

"We feel good about [Mr. McMillen] running in the 1st [District] and winning," he said. "When the voters have the opportunity to compare the performance of the candidates, the result will be positive for the Democratic Party and we will pick up another seat." Although he had been unhappy with the protections afforded Mrs. Bentley, Mr. Landow said he is pleased with what he knows of the new map. He said he had not analyzed the final product. "I assume the Democratic incumbents are comfortable with their districts," he said. "They should be protected."

* That Republican Mrs. Bentley would have been spared the necessity of running against Mr. Gilchrest was a reversal of political fortunes. Leaning on her close political relationship with Gov. William Donald Schaefer and exploiting regional animosities triggered by the first plans, Mrs. Bentley was able to extricate herself and Mr. Gilchrest from an intramural fight. She ended up with the sort of "safe" district a Democrat might have relished.

When the process ended, Ms. Morella represented a district that was virtually unchanged. Efforts were made to chip away at some of her precincts -- but for various reasons they were not successful.

Delegate Leon H. Billings, D-Montgomery, was among the Democrats disgusted with the final result. A good Democratic plan, he said, would have given Mr. Hoyer a significant portion of Montgomery County, where he might have found many good Democrats who valued his position as a Democratic leader in the House.

"Unfortunately," he said, "the governor's commitment to a Republican congresswoman and the leadership in the legislature's commitment to their geographic interests frustrated the will of the voters," he said.

What happened with redistricting, says Carol A. Arscott, chairwoman of the Howard County Republican Central Committee, "is the logical result of what's happened in the last 10 years." Greater Republican voter registration as the result of aggressive recruitment efforts -- and the often-sited influence of the Reagan presidency -- leaves the party stronger even in traditionally Democratic Maryland.

"The result only reflects reality," she said.

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