IS THE MARYLAND Court of Appeals redistricting map that left Baltimore with just six state legislative districts, all within its borders, as catastrophic for the city as some would have you believe?
A case can be made that it's not.
First off, Baltimore's erosion of power because of shifts in population is nothing new; it has been going on for half a century.
In 1950, Baltimore had 949,708 people, 41 percent of the state's 2.34 million population. Today, the city has 651,154 people, 12 percent of the state's 5.3 million population.
Contrary to popular belief, Baltimore's loss of power results mostly from the suburbanization of the state, not the city's decline in population.
The city's 31 percent loss of population over 50 years has been sharp - but not nearly as sharp as the population growth of the state's major counties. Montgomery County, the state's largest jurisdiction, grew from 164,401 people in 1950 to 873,341 in 2000, a 430 percent increase. If the city had as many people today as it had in 1950, it would still have only 18 percent of the state's total.
Maryland's suburbanization is part of a nationwide pattern that is nearly as strong as it has ever been. As Brookings Institution researchers Bruce Katz and Alan Berube pointed out in this month's issue of The American Enterprise Online, the suburbs of the country's 100 largest metropolitan areas grew much faster than the cities at their core. That was true for all types of cities, regardless of whether their populations were falling, stagnating or growing.
Much is being made of the elimination of the city's portion of the previously shared Baltimore-Baltimore County 42nd District - and the political peril that portends for state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, chairwoman of the Budget and Taxation Committee and a powerful advocate for the city's interests.
But the city has lost districts before: The 1990 redistricting plan wiped out a center-city district and, with it, the political career of former state Sen. Julian L. Lapides, a 33-year legislative veteran.
And, until she took herself out of contention early last week for a Johns Hopkins University lobbying job, Hoffman was toying with the idea of leaving the General Assembly anyway.
Then there is the fact that, by the broadest measures, Baltimore did not fare well in the past decade despite efforts to preserve some of the city's influence in Annapolis by having it share some legislative districts with Baltimore County. Baltimore lost more people from 1990 to 2000 than any other city in the country; its homicide rate was one of the worst nationwide; and vacant and abandoned property proliferated.
Ronald D. Utt, an urban scholar at the Heritage Foundation, said cities that have turned themselves around - such as Chicago and New York - have done so not because of non-municipal policies and support, but because of effective local governance, especially when it comes to providing good basic services.
A local case in point is the Convention Center. The state funded two-thirds of the cost of expanding it, but bookings have been hurt by city officials' decision in the mid-1990s to choose Inner Harbor East, not downtown, as the site for a new hotel.
If Baltimore seems poised for a rebound today, it's not because the city has six or eight or 10 state senators whose districts lie entirely or partly within the municipality's boundaries, but because the city has a mayor in Martin O'Malley with a seemingly clearer strategy for reducing crime and blight, and encouraging economic development, than his predecessor had.
Moreover, for all the chatter that shared city-Baltimore County legislative districts would foster regional approaches to problems, for the betterment of the city and its suburban counties, it's hard to see concrete evidence that that has happened. Shared districts have done little to encourage a more equitable distribution of affordable housing, let alone more sweeping initiatives such as sharing tax bases, which is not even on the political radar screen.
True regionalism requires cooperation not just between the city and Baltimore County, but also between those two jurisdictions and Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties. Even if the city and Baltimore County were considered one entity for redistricting purposes, and all of the districts were shared, the two jurisdictions would account for a little more than a quarter of the state's population.
The key nexus for regional cooperation is at least as much on the local executive level - mayor and county executive - as in the General Assembly. What ultimately will stimulate that cooperation is a sense of shared problems and shared solutions, not shared legislative districts.
To be sure, Baltimore needs continued financial support from the state - for drug treatment, crime-fighting, economic development and education.
To get it, the city is going to have to beg, fight, threaten and even sue, as it did in joining with the American Civil Liberties Union in the mid-1990s to get more funding for schools.
Those are techniques the city has had to use for years, and they're techniques the city is going to have to use in the future, regardless of how its legislative maps are drawn.