Glendening maps stretch logic, law

April 04, 2002|By Barry Rascovar

EACH GENERATION of politicians gets a chance to redefine a classic political Americanism known as the gerrymander. Maryland's current politicos are doing a bang-up job this year.

The objective is to redraw political lines to benefit the party in power, Maryland Democrats.

This practice is nearly as old as the republic. Back in 1811, Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry signed a bill that twisted district lines to favor his party. Painter Gilbert Stuart thought the map resembled a salamander. He mentioned this to a newspaper editor, who replied, "Salamander? Call it a Gerrymander!"

Ever since, the word's been given a villainous connotation. Maryland, though, has avoided the worst of the political gerrymander.

Our state constitution requires, for instance, that each legislative district consist of "adjoining territory, be compact in form, and of substantially equal population. Due regard shall be given to natural boundaries and the boundaries of political subdivisions."

Until now, state leaders pretty much adhered to this mandate. That can't be said of the Glendening plan, which was approved by the General Assembly through inaction this session.

It's a New Age gerrymander that might not pass judicial scrutiny.

Challenges have been filed by liberal Democrats, conservative Democrats and Republicans, all victims of the Glendening Gerrymander.

The most grotesque mapmaking attempts to wipe out Sens. Norman R. Stone Jr. and Clarence M. Mitchell IV. Mr. Stone's offense remains unknown. He's well-liked and the senior member of the Senate. Mr. Mitchell has double-crossed the governor and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller often. It's payback time.

The new Mitchell district, the 44th, is an atrocity, winding from the senator's home in West Baltimore throughout South Baltimore, where he'd be the underdog against Sen. George W. Della Jr.

That's not all. The district then leaps the Patapsco River to grab much of Dundalk, a world apart. It defies geography: uniting southeast Baltimore County with West Baltimore.

Mr. Stone's district ceases to exist, carved up to help other senators. His portion of Dundalk and Edgemere winds up in a northern Anne Arundel County district.

Look at the map: He'd need a powerboat to commute between the district's northern end in extreme southeastern Baltimore County and the more populous Anne Arundel portion south of the Patapsco, where it enters the Chesapeake Bay.

"Adjoining territory"? "Compact in form"? No way. "Due regard" for natural and political boundaries became "no regard."

But that's not the end of the horrors. The Glendening Gerrymander weaves through the Washington suburbs in a way that seems to thwart the interests of minority voters -- and the federal Voting Rights Act.

In majority-black Prince George's, the objective was to retain white incumbents by cramming African-Americans into their current districts.

In Montgomery, a diverse minority population was dispersed among districts dominated by white incumbents. Little effort was made to construct "minority-majority" districts, as the Voting Rights Act requires.

In the past, the state Court of Appeals has avoided a confrontation. But Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, who is black, may take offense at the way the maps try to restrict minority representation. A recent ruling in a Virginia court on racial gerrymandering may provide the legal rationale to overturn the governor's maps.

Two other judges on the appeals court, John C. Eldridge and Alan M. Wilner, drafted the state constitutional language in dispute. They may have their own ideas about the definition of "compact" and "adjoining."

Clearly, the art of gerrymandering is flourishing in Maryland. Congressional boundary lines are skewed almost as badly to punish Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, who dared to think about running against Mr. Glendening four years ago.

What a mess.

The congressional maps may survive for lack of a strong challenge in federal court; the General Assembly maps appear more vulnerable.

That could play havoc with the timing of election events this year. Already, Judge Bell has pushed back the filing deadline for General Assembly seats. More changes may be needed if the legislature is forced into a special session to redraw what appears to be a badly flawed redistricting plan.

Barry Rascovar, a former deputy editorial page editor, is a Baltimore communications consultant. His e-mail address is brascovar@hotmail.com.

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