REDISTRICTING The 1998 gubernatorial race will determine Baltimore's political future

September 28, 1997|By Carol A. Arscott

The next census is three years away, but the dogfight for dominance in the legislative redistricting process has begun.

Redistricting is every political junkie's favorite parlor game. As 2000 approaches, the stakes are rising because the Republicans appear to have a chance to elect their first governor since Spiro T. Agnew.

Recently, Larry Gibson, the political strategist for Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry, endorsed Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. Gibson, the Maryland Democratic party's premier political organizer, said "a vote for Glendening in the primary is a vote for Ellen Sauerbrey," referring to the likely Republican nominee for the 1998 campaign.

Gibson said he was fearful of a Republican takeover of the General Assembly and the State House. Clearly, Gibson is concerned that Baltimore would lose some of its political strength if redistricting falls into Republican hands.

As Gibson well understands, legislative district lines allocate political power, power that ultimately rests with the voters. The greater the number of legislative districts drawn in your district, the greater the number of legislators who will be sent to Annapolis to do your bidding.

Redistricting is a subject that glazes the eyes of people outside of political circles, but it's something all Marylanders should care about. All manner of mischief occurs when the politicians are left to themselves to draw new district lines to reflect population changes. Look at what happened after the 1990 census. The governor, William Donald Schaefer, was a former mayor of Baltimore. Although thousands of people moved out of the city during the 1980s, enough to shrink the legislative delegation by two senators and six delegates, Schaefer was determined that the city be spared the pain of diminished representation.

This, of course, was impossible to accomplish under existing rules, so the rules were changed so that smaller than average districts could be created in the city.

Once the size of an "ideal" district was determined (a population of 101,733 - Maryland's total population divided by 47, the number of legislative districts) the governor's redistricting advisory commission agreed that there could be a 10 percent variance. This allowed districts to be as small as 96,646 and as large as 106,820, a difference of 10,174. Commission mapmakers then used that variance to systematically create smaller-than-average districts in the city.

But even that was not enough to protect the city's delegation to the extent that the gov- [See Redistrict, 8e]

ernor desired. To do that, district lines crossed into Baltimore County to acquire the population to constitute full (albeit smaller-than-average) legislative districts, ultimately giving the

city 10 senators, but just five of whom represent city residents only.

Of course, the consequence of smaller-than-average districts didn't affect Baltimore alone. If the city had more than its share, some place else received less than its share. That place was Central Maryland, where population had grown the most, where there were fewer incumbents - and where the incumbents were Republicans.

Legislative District 14 in Howard County, for example, was drawn with a 1990 population of more than 106,000, at the extreme upper edge of the 10 percent variance. This 1990 figure was woefully out-of-date by the time the districts were adopted in 1992. Ten percent may not seem significant, but over time this policy created an important difference. While a city district was smaller than average and destined to shrink over the next 10 years, this Howard County district was larger than average and destined to grow. Therefore, the disparity in representation - and political power - would only get worse.

Arguments that this "arrangement" violated the one man/one vote principle failed to impress the commission or the courts. But the variance policy seemed especially strange in light of the process employed mere weeks before by the same commission to draw the state's eight congressional districts. These of course, are much larger in population but nearly perfect in mathematical equality. The smallest congressional district, based on 1990 census figures, had a population of 597,680 and the largest 597,690 - a difference of 10. These figures are duly recorded in the Maryland Manual. It's interesting that the manual doesn't give population figures for Maryland's legislative districts.

So where was the outrage? Where was Montgomery County? What about the Republicans?

Well, the Republicans squawk-ed some but had too few votes to be much of a concern. And frankly, most of them, along with their brethren from Montgomery County, were happy enough with their own individual situations that they acquiesced in the master plan.

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