Disconnected and rejected

January 05, 2003|By C. Fraser Smith

IN MARYLAND politics, 2002 was the year of The Phone Call.

Oh sure, it was also the year of The Map, the one that redrew legislative district lines. Without The Map - gleefully drawn to help allies and hurt foes - there might not have been a call. Without The Map and The Phone Call, who knows? Casper R. Taylor Jr. of Cumberland might still be speaker of the House of Delegates. Barbara A. Hoffman might still be chairman of a powerful legislative committee. The Republican Party of Maryland might still be in the wilderness.

The Call helped to put Maryland Democrats out of the State House. Few executive orders or packages of bills have had more impact. The Call was the weightless straw pressing upon the camel's back - excess in an atmosphere of one-party rule, a mere trifle amid the ponderous affairs of state. But, in thought-free moments, powerful forces deploy.

A phone call brought us a year of change and the year of a shoot-the-moon risk-taker: the GOP's Gov.-elect Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Jim Brochin, to name one famous and one obscure member of that relatively small risk-takers club.

Democrat Brochin won a state Senate seat in a heavily Republican district. He knocked on more doors before the midsummer filing deadline than most candidates did after the campaign began. He did it all over again when the boundaries of his Senate district were changed during redistricting (boundaries altered profoundly by the map and The Call).

Republican Ehrlich took on a Kennedy and the more numerous Maryland Democrats (2-1 voter registration edge), becoming the first member of his party in 36 years to win the State House. His running mate, Lt. Gov.-elect Michael S. Steele, became the first African-American elected to statewide office in Maryland.

The Call contributed. It accelerated subterranean momentum toward change at the top, change from Democratic to Republican rule.

Change might have come anyway, but The Call helped to close the deal.

The Caller, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., says he wanted to "yell" at judges of Maryland's Court of Appeals. The judges were scrutinizing The Map, a set of new district lines drawn principally by Mr. Miller and Gov. Parris N. Glendening. The Map was taken to court by various aggrieved parties, including Mr. Steele, the GOP chairman in Maryland. Then Mr. Miller picked up the phone. He says he called on other matters, but the perception (reality) in politics held otherwise.

The judges were instantly compromised. If they ratified the Miller-Glendening plan they would have seemed in thrall to mere politicians. The highest state court would have looked like a partner in what a federal district court judge called "a culture of corruption" in Annapolis.

So the court threw out The Map. And drew its own. It put Mr. Taylor and Ms. Hoffman in new districts that were no longer "safe" - the sort of easy-to-get-re-elected-in district you can expect when your party is drawing the lines.

The Glendening-Miller team went too far. They hooked up Dundalk with downtown Baltimore, reaching across four miles of river and violating any semblance of conformity with the state constitution, which wants at least a bow in the direction of geographical affinity, communities of interest and geographical boundaries. Here was excess with a cherry on top.

Live by the sword (or The Call) and die by it. Mr. Taylor suddenly had more Republicans in his new district, leaving him vulnerable to those who didn't like his more liberal positions on gambling and guns. Ms. Hoffman had more African-American voters, leaving her vulnerable to an insistent wave of talented new black candidates. Both lost.

Baltimore had far more representation in the General Assembly before The Call because the 1990 redistricting map linked Baltimore with Baltimore County by means of shared senatorial districts. The court wiped them out, called them unconstitutional - though it allowed shared jurisdictions in other parts of the state.

As a result of this carnage, some thought Maryland might profit in the future from a redistricting process managed by a commission, not by the incumbent governor and his or her partisan lieutenants. Because they could foresee a time when their party would be in charge, perhaps, Republicans in Maryland more or less endorsed the partisan nature of the process. Their turn would come.

They ought to be careful what they wish for.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun. His column appears Sundays.

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