Census gains may bring more political power

Extra 60,000 might add delegates, district

March 21, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The extra 60,000 Howard County residents counted in last year's census should mean one or maybe two more votes in Annapolis - and maybe even a whole legislative district for county officials to call their own, county leaders said.

Legislative redistricting based on the census probably won't be settled until early next year, and Howard's influence is minimal compared with that of the state's largest jurisdictions. For that reason, "the possibilities are there for just about anything to happen," said Howard-Prince George's state Sen. Martin G. Madden, the Republicans' Senate minority leader.

Still, "it certainly could mean more representation for Howard County," said veteran Democratic Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a former county executive. "Clearly, we should be eligible for one, or maybe two delegates," said County Council Chairman Guy J. Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat.

But as the only Maryland county so centrally located that its borders touch neither the Chesapeake Bay nor the border of another state, Howard is in no position to control its fate.

"Because it's a pushed balloon, Howard will most likely end with multijurisdictional districts," said Madden. Redrawing state legislative district boundaries normally starts at Maryland's edges, or with political decisions based on the desires of the state's largest jurisdictions, not on those of the smallest.

That means Howard, Maryland's second-smallest jurisdiction in land area, but fifth-largest in population, usually gets squeezed from both ends of the Interstate 95 corridor, leaving it in 1991, for example, with parts of three districts shared with Montgomery, Baltimore and Prince George's counties. The county has an 11-member legislative contingent composed of three state senators and eight delegates.

Last year's count showed Howard County with 247,800 people - a 32 percent increase - and the third-highest growth rate in Maryland. Each legislative district - one state senator and three delegates - is supposed to contain about 112,000 people, so Howard should be entitled to one or maybe two more delegates.

"I would certainly hope that we will gain a whole legislative district for Howard County," said Wendy Fiedler, Howard's Democratic Party chairwoman.

County Executive James N. Robey, also a Democrat, shares the hope, he said. Having a district completely in Howard County allows legislators to "focus on one jurisdiction. Priorities in Howard County can be quite different," Robey said, from those in Baltimore or Montgomery counties.

The issue for Democrats is how to spread the party's voting strength to get the maximum number of Democrats elected without risking losses to the GOP. For that reason, chances are that heavily Democratic Columbia will remain divided between two districts rather than being unified in one.

Louis M. Pope, Howard's Republican party leader, expects state Democrats to use their power to full advantage, but he still sees a local silver lining.

Within Howard County, "the growth that's occurred has got to help Republicans more than Democrats," he said, noting that most new residents moved to areas outside Columbia, the county's traditional Democratic bastion.

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