Redistricting map slices Balto. Co. `like piece of pie'

Proposal would put Cockeysville stretch in 3 different districts

`Classic inside politics'

February 19, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

In far less time than it takes to soft boil an egg, or to sing whatever song is playing on the car radio, a person can drive a 3/8-mile stretch of York Road in Cockeysville and cross three invisible borders, traversing territory that might soon be assigned to three different members of the House of Representatives.

Nothing on the road marks the changes, which for now exist only on a proposed map to redraw Maryland's congressional districts. The barbecue place just above Beaver Run Lane is there, a stone's throw from the strip of antiques shops above Cockeysville Road.

But if the legislature approves the new map, as it is likely to do, these businesses, now in the same district, will suddenly be connected to Cumberland and Ocean City, respectively, for at least the next decade.

"Gee, that's dumb," said Jean Donnell, a speech teacher at Essex Community College whose Warren Road townhouse, because it's on the north side of the street, would fall into the Eastern Shore district.

"Is it in our best interest to have a representative who lives two hours away? That's like making President Bush the president of Russia. And what's the purpose? It's political, isn't it."

And how.

Redistricting is among the most partisan-driven exercises in the United States. With each 10-year census, states must reorganize their district maps to properly reflect population shifts.

This mathematical task is coupled with a tantalizing opportunity for the political party controlling a state to create territories custom-made to elect more of its own.

And this year - an election year when Republicans control the House of Representatives by just six seats - many states have come under intense pressure from the national parties, which form special consulting arms to provide voter performance data to local politicians.

"It's arcane. It's classic inside politics," said Tim Storey, a redistricting analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"The public doesn't take much of an interest in it," he said. "And it's very difficult to get them interested because they generally don't see the connection between the makeup of their district and the policy that comes out of the House of Representatives."

The remoteness of the process allows some very strange things to happen. In one Western state, a lawmaker wanted his mother to stay in his district, Storey said. No matter that his mother was dead - the map's drafters simply included her cemetery in his district.

In Maryland, the governor's goal was to protect incumbents and gain one or two more Democratic representatives by ousting Republicans Constance A. Morella and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. And rather than shift a district to the more populous Washington suburbs, the drafting committee chose to retain three seats in the Baltimore area.

The strategy resulted in many squiggly lines across Baltimore County, which the new map splits five ways, up from three.

Although it might look as if the map's drafters had a bit too much to drink when they set their pens to the county, David Lublin, a government professor at American University, points out that neatly shaped districts don't always equal fair districts.

And northern Baltimore County is largely Republican, so linking it with other GOP districts is defensible. "In terms of the bizarreness of the groupings of people, these lines are not at all extreme," he said.

Such messiness appears to be spread evenly across the country, with varying degrees of acceptance. Of the nearly 35 states that have completed their legislative and congressional redistricting, 23 have been sued. Even in the six states where an independent commission draws the maps, court complaints are common.

"No matter how you draw the lines, whether it's a rhesus monkey in the lab or some supercomputer, the outcome is so political," Storey said. "I don't think you can take the politics out of redistricting."

Maryland's committee (one Republican and four Democrats, including the Senate president and the House speaker) made no secret of its motives.

To make re-election difficult for Baltimore County's Ehrlich, and to preserve a comfortable 7th District for Democrat Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore, the drafters made creative use of two other districts: Republican Wayne T. Gilchrest's 1st District on the Eastern Shore and Republican Roscoe G. Bartlett's 6th District in Western Maryland.

The committee carved out a new, Y-shaped 2nd District designed to appeal to Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who might run for the seat Ehrlich now holds.

Adding to Ehrlich's discomfort, Gilchrest's district crosses the Chesapeake and stretches through Baltimore County, where it hooks just enough to take in Ehrlich's house.

As a result, to avoid challenging a fellow Republican, Ehrlich will be forced to campaign in the new 2nd District - even though he won't live there - if he runs for re-election.

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