A chance to shift lines of power

March 22, 2001|By Barry Rascovar

THE GOOD NEWS for Baltimore City is that it could have been worse.

That's the best to be said for the Census Bureau's population results showing a loss of 85,000 Baltimore residents in the 1990s.

After seeing people flee the city at a rate of 1,000 a month early in the decade, Baltimore's exodus slowed a bit. Still, it's a tale of the incredible shrinking city.

In 1850, Baltimore (with 169,000 citizens) ranked as the nation's second-largest urban center, after New York. By 1950, the city by the Patapsco had grown to 949,708. Then decline set in -- a loss of nearly 300,000 residents who moved to the suburbs over a half-century.

This week's census numbers confirmed the growing dominance of the suburbs. More than 116,000 people moved to Montgomery County, 72,000 settled in Prince George's, 62,000 put down roots in Baltimore County, the same number moved to Anne Arundel and another 60,000 favored Howard County.

In political terms, this could mean difficult times for the city in the State House. Applying a strict numeric standard, Baltimore is only entitled to 5.78 senators (compared with 7.24 senators now).

But there's a good chance that won't occur, that the city will retain or increase its current strength.

This could happen through the magic of legislative districts that cross political boundaries.

You could slice the city's legislative districts up like you would a pizza so that the city shares most or all of its districts with surrounding counties.

It could give this region considerable muscle in the legislature.

Some city politicians worry that Gov. Parris N. Glendening only cares about maximizing the legislative power of Prince George's and Montgomery counties.

But Mr. Glendening likely will have another redistricting objective: maximizing the strength of the state's Democrats. And that can't happen unless the governor employs a sliced-pizza approach around Baltimore.

Done with exquisite skill, legislative districts could start in downtown Baltimore as narrow geographic wedges, then widen as they move into the suburbs. Like spokes on a wheel, districts could travel into northern Anne Arundel County, eastern Howard County and Baltimore County.

Such maneuvering would help ensure Democratic dominance in the suburbs. It also could put some Republican incumbents on life-support.

A prime target might be freshman Baltimore County Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a right-wing Republican physician who hasn't sparkled in Annapolis. His north-county district runs from the Pennsylvania border all the way to the city limits south of Towson.

What if his district lost some of its big Republican precincts in Timonium and Cockeysville while it picked up heavily Democratic precincts along York Road in the city?

That reconfiguration might make victory tough not only for Senator Harris, but for freshman GOP Del. James M. Kelly, too.

The governor could even boost the fortunes of minorities in the suburbs by creating a West Baltimore district that runs through Baltimore County's Liberty Road into south Carroll County. It would be a predominantly African-American district with enough Democratic votes to elect a full slate of black legislators representing all three jurisdictions.

It would be a fitting turn of events. Carroll County is the most right-wing jurisdiction in the region. It's also the most lily-white. Only 3,400 blacks live there (2 percent of 150,000 residents). What irony it would be if Mr. Glendening sent Carroll voters a farewell present in the form of a minority-dominated district.

So all is not lost for Baltimore. A conniving governor could dream up as many as 17 shared city-county districts. Each city-anchored district would come with a rock-solid Democratic base.

Right now, there are only five pure city-only legislative districts. Another five districts are shared with Baltimore County. That was William Donald Schaefer's legacy.

What if Mr. Glendening brings Anne Arundel, Howard and Carroll into the mix as his legacy?

That would do wonders for regionalism. Not enough lawmakers think in regional terms. But they would if more of them had to answer on Election Day to a constituency that included some city precincts and some precincts in a neighboring county.

Erasing the invisible barriers that separate counties and form a wall around the city would be a major breakthrough. The problems confronting jurisdictions are remarkably similar -- crime, drugs, education, health care. Yet too many state lawmakers still think in narrow, parochial terms.

The governor could change that with some sophisticated redrawing of legislative boundaries.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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