A shrinking Baltimore is losing its political grip

Power: Having fewer residents means having fewer representatives in the Assembly.

Census 2000 The Maryland Count

March 20, 2001|By Thomas W. Waldron and Jeff Barker | Thomas W. Waldron and Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

After a decade of middle-class flight from Baltimore, city officials are bracing for the political consequences - a loss of at least one legislative district and reduced power in the Maryland State House, lawmakers and analysts said yesterday.

Census figures released yesterday suggest that Baltimore - with a loss of nearly 85,000 residents since 1990 - will do well to lose only one of its eight legislative districts when the General Assembly redraws the state's political map next year.

Loss of a district would mean four fewer votes for the city in Annapolis and, perhaps more importantly, a heightened sense around the State House that the stature of the city that once ruled Maryland politics continues to fade.

"I think it's a big deal from a perception viewpoint," said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, head of the city's Senate delegation. "You give the feeling that the city has been gutted."

The new census figures also show that the Democrats who control the State House may find it more difficult than they had hoped to redraw Maryland's eight congressional districts to sculpt one that would help them send one more of their own to Capitol Hill.

Although Democrats hold a voter registration advantage of nearly 2 to 1 in Maryland, Republicans have managed to hold onto four congressional seats - the same number as Democrats.

Nationally, Maryland is considered a prime target for the Democratic Party to win an additional seat in the House of Representatives.

"It's one of the most Democratic states in the country, but still you have this evenly split House delegation. So the House delegation is really an anomaly, and this is an opportunity for Democrats to make gains," said Greg Speed, spokesman for Rep. Martin Frost, a Texas Democrat who chairs a group coordinating redistricting strategy for the party.

The General Assembly is expected to take up what promises to be a bruising redistricting fight during its annual session beginning next January.

Candidates for the state's eight congressional seats and Maryland's 188 legislative posts will run in the newly created districts in next year's election.

Before the legislature convenes, a commission will attempt to create new district maps for the legislature to consider next January. There is little doubt that Baltimore will be on the chopping block as lawmakers draw 47 legislative districts, each with about 112,000 residents.

Currently, of Baltimore's eight legislative districts, five fall entirely within city limits and three have a majority of their population in Baltimore. A pair of districts based in Baltimore County take in slivers of the city.

The numbers released by the U.S. Census Bureau show Baltimore with a population of 651,154, meaning the city should be entitled to no more than six districts. Depending on how districts are redrawn, that could mean a loss of at least one, if not two, state senators from Baltimore and as many as six delegates.

Under one scenario being discussed, the city would lose one of its districts, and several of the current districts would stretch out to take in more Baltimore County voters.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley said he will emphasize that strategy.

"I think the districts that span the city and county are good things," O'Malley said last night during a lobbying trip to Annapolis. "The fact of the matter is a healthy city means a healthy county."

Baltimore's loss could be Montgomery County's gain. The state's largest county now has more than 873,000 residents, meaning Montgomery could well see its number of senators in the legislature grow from seven to eight.

"We're entitled to eight resident senators, and that's what we're going to go for," said Del. Kumar P. Barve, who heads Montgomery's House delegation. "Our population increased by 116,000. That's one legislative district."

With the census number finally available, state political leaders are already buzzing about the options for redrawing congressional district maps, with Democrats looking to maximize their advantage by tinkering with Republican-held districts.

They could put Democratic voters from Silver Spring and Takoma Park into the Montgomery County district of Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella.

They also could combine parts of Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest's district, which includes all of the Eastern Shore and Annapolis, with parts of the district of Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., which encompasses portions of Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties and all of Harford County.

Ehrlich said he wouldn't challenge Gilchrest if their districts were merged, but that he would consider running in a newly carved district where he wouldn't have to face an incumbent Republican.

Members of Congress are not required to live in the district they represent.

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