Assembly sweepstake unofficially under way

Census data in hand, legislators, governor set to redraw districts

`Every man for himself'

Assembly unofficially begins redistricting

Governor wields map to keep Assembly in line

March 30, 2001|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Legislative redistricting unofficially began in Annapolis this week, and the best evidence is the map stationed prominently in Gov. Parris N. Glendening's State House office.

Senators and delegates who visit Glendening to ask for favors can't miss the map, which shows Maryland's 47 General Assembly districts.

The governor's aides call the map a "gentle reminder" - redistricting is coming up, and lawmakers better behave if they want Glendening's help when the state's political atlas is redrawn next year.

Although redistricting has been on lawmakers' minds for some time, the buzz around the topic has grown significantly after this week's release of the first U.S. Census figures showing where the voters are.

"It's always in the air, but especially with the numbers out," said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, an East Baltimore Democrat.

Done once every 10 years, after each census, redistricting is the ultimate political sweepstakes.

Lawmakers who play their cards right and end up with a district loaded with their kind of voters go a long way toward ensuring themselves a couple more terms in office.

Those who lose out and get shifted into foreign territory, or in the worst scenario, get squeezed into the same district as another incumbent, could see their political careers crash.

This week, redistricting became a recurrent topic of conversation after legislative analysts produced a long chart showing the population breakdown of each voting precinct in Maryland.

Those are the building blocks of legislative districts, and lawmakers across the state are using them to begin creating their proposals.

"There's a thousand different ideas out there being kicked around," said Del. Brian K. McHale, a South Baltimore Democrat. "Everyone's scenario includes everybody's district but their own being affected detrimentally. It's every man for himself."

Like all the districts in Baltimore, McHale's 47th District has lost residents in the decade since the lines were redrawn after the 1990 census. The 47th has 95,000 residents, well below the 112,000 that an average district should have.

Past court rulings have held that the size of a legislative district may vary by 10 percent around the state. That means, the 47th District needs to expand to take in 10,000 more voters.

"The bottom line is, I have to go out and find 10,000 bodies - Democrats, or folks we can register as Democrats, before the next election," McHale said.

Early analysis of the census data suggests that Baltimore, which has eight legislative districts, may have to shrink to seven or even six because of the city's population loss. Fast-growing areas in Southern Maryland and the central part of the state between Baltimore and Washington could end up with more districts.

The 44th District, which takes in the city's core, is often mentioned as a candidate to vanish, in part because it has only 78,000 residents, the smallest number in the state. (By contrast, the state's largest district, which straddles Montgomery and Howard counties, has 140,000 residents, thanks to the enormous growth in western Columbia and Olney.)

The loss in the 44th could force the district's senator, Clarence M. Mitchell IV, to run against another incumbent Democrat if he wants to remain in office.

Mitchell professes to be upbeat, suggesting that he has worked to solidify his relationship with the ranking lawmakers.

"Last year, it was quite questionable whether I would have a district," Mitchell said. "I feel very good right now about the possibilities of having a district."

The concern isn't limited to the city limits.

One well-traveled idea has the Democrats who control the State House trying hard to lump as many Republican incumbents into the same districts as possible.

In Howard County, that could mean drawing a district that includes the homes of GOP Sens. Christopher J. McCabe and Martin G. Madden. As Republicans, Madden and McCabe will probably have little to say about how the map is redrawn.

"I don't worry about things I can't control," said Madden, who was first elected in 1990. "I went through this one time before, and it turned out just fine."

Madden and McCabe know they have little pull with the man who will have the largest say in redistricting - Glendening, a highly partisan Democrat.

Under the Maryland Constitution, the governor must submit a redistricting plan to the General Assembly next year.

If the legislature can't agree on an alternative map within 45 days, the governor's proposal becomes law.

Veteran lawmakers say it's unlikely that the Assembly would be able to agree on changes, meaning the governor's plan will most likely go into effect with few, if any, changes.

Michael Morrill, a spokesman for Glendening, declined to say whether the governor believes the legislative district map can be drawn to create additional seats for Democrats, who hold majorities of more than 2-to-1 in the House of Delegates and Senate.

But he suggested the governor would try to do that.

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