Slicing up the region could restore its power

January 13, 2002|By C. Fraser Smith

AGAINST ALL odds, the festival of democracy known as redistricting may actually help the voters. It may result, for example, in a shredding of city-county or county-county boundaries that stifle power in a region already suffering low wattage.

Since 1991, Baltimore and Baltimore County have shared seven legislative districts: Some precincts lie in the city, some in the county. Now, with another re-balancing of district populations at hand, the sharing has grown. In all, Baltimore County will share 10 districts with its neighbors, including the city.

If you set aside the squeals of unhappy legislators who may have to work harder to win, you could argue that redistricting represents a new and far more realistic view of this region. Poverty, crime, blight, trouble in schools, transportation matters and a basket full of other concerns do not respect boundaries.

David Rusk, an urban scholar and former mayor of Albuquerque, N.M., wrote years ago that the Baltimore region needs regionalism - and cooperative effort of all its political representatives. He and his study, which tried to show how we're all in the same leaky boat, went nowhere. The politicians were not going to defy the voters.

But now, in the guise of redistricting, we may observe a form of forced regionalism, something elected officials would never even discuss.

Political power depends quite properly on population, and since Maryland's people are now concentrating in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, the metropolitan Baltimore region loses clout. Cross-boundary lines could get us back in the game.

We must thank Parris N. Glendening, a very political governor from the Washington 'burbs. Does he really want to help Baltimore? Yes.

Having offered himself as a national leader on the educational and environmental fronts, he hopes this year to make a bid for political prominence. He wants to change the very balance of power in Washington.

No, it's not a delusion of grandeur. Mr. Glendening could do it - or claim to have done it, which in politics can be just as good.

Here's the plan.

The governor presides over redistricting, a re-drawing of Maryland's legislative and congressional district lines. It is that process that shreds city-county lines. The cross-boundary state legislative districts help city Democrats, often by taking voters from Baltimore County. That has drawn yelps - but, again, the result could help voters and the region. Why won't legislators applaud that? We know the answer.

At the same time, the governor hopes a new, Democrat-drawn layout will help him send six Democrats to the U.S. House of Representatives, where power will shift to Democrats if they make sufficient gains nationwide.

A governor who produces two more Dems while un-electing two Republicans could look like a power broker.

Voters in Maryland's eight congressional districts have recently sent four members of each party to the House. But redistricting allows a governor to creatively stack, pack and crack voting precincts in ways that aggregate his party's strength while diluting the GOP's.

Baltimore and surrounding counties gain because mapmakers will honor the power and reliability of the Democratic Party's most reliable bloc of voters. This will help the region by retaining its strength in Washington, from whence cometh most of the help upon which an inner city relies.

African-Americans stand as the fulcrum for moving the process back to the Baltimore area. There are enough black voters in the city, according to this theory, to allow one, two or three congressional districts to be significantly muscled up by their presence.

The governor and his mapmakers have all but abandoned a plan that would put four congressional districts in the D.C. suburbs, leaving Baltimore with (shudder) only two.

They've apparently decided they'd be more likely to get the six Democrats and two Republicans they want by playing from their strength: Baltimore's African-American voters, who go for Democrats by huge margins year after election year.

In a leading version of the congressional plan, one of the new configurations is being called "the Ruppersberger" district by insiders. Yes, the mapmakers tailor their product to individual candidates, in this case C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the Baltimore County executive.

Some are warning that the African-American power might not stretch far enough. They're urging the governor to be careful, and that he may have to settle for a 5-3 split at best.

All this shifting and shaving of precincts may or may not help the anointed beneficiaries.

But if the shared legislative and congressional districts remain intact, and if the Baltimore region keeps three congressmen - and if the political players see their opportunity - the realignments of 2002 could give the city and its surrounding counties new political life.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.