14-district plan for council criticized

Foes say mayor's map cuts blacks' representation

But proposal expected to pass

March 17, 2003|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

In less than two weeks, Mayor Martin O'Malley's plan to reshape the Baltimore City Council will likely become law, altering the course of local elections for the next 10 years.

Tonight, the council will discuss minor redistricting plan changes before placing it on the agenda for the meeting March 24 - when passage is all but guaranteed, council members said.

Although voters approved the change by referendum last year, council members and political observers have been surprised by what they say is the tamest redistricting process in recent memory.

But in the final stretch, activists who pushed for the change are preparing to possibly launch a legal challenge.

"If they don't do the right thing, we or someone else will file a lawsuit," said Mitchell Klein, an organizer with Community and Labor United for Baltimore (CLUB). The mayor's plan "does not give low-income [residents] or African-Americans full voting rights."

O'Malley's plan, unveiled Jan. 27, changes the council's representation from six three-member districts to 14 single-member districts, but does not affect the council president.

The opposition gathering strength ironically harks back to a fear that having single-member districts would reduce African-American representation, a reason O'Malley and the council initially opposed the change.

1991 changes

Two redistricting experts say O'Malley's plan will not preserve the current African-American council majority in a city where 64 percent of the residents are black. The council is 67 percent African-American, not counting the at-large president, who is black. The recent majority was a product of a rancorous 1991 redistricting process.

The council's current configuration has existed since 1967. Every 10 years, council districts are redrawn based on population changes reflected in new census data. In 1991, the council killed then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's proposal and passed its plan that created five of six districts with black majorities.

"Who dictates what the face of Baltimore City politics looks like - the mayor or the council?" asked Arthur Murphy, a political consultant who as president of the local NAACP in 1991 opposed Schmoke's plan. "O'Malley will determine who represents what neighborhoods for now and for the next 10 years."

Age, turnout factors

The redistricting experts, John T. Willis and Samuel L. Walters, agree that under O'Malley's proposal black majorities would reside in 12 of the 14 proposed districts.

However, their studies contend that nine districts contain African-American majorities eligible to vote. When voter turnout is considered, three of those nine districts historically have favored white candidates.

That means that six of the 14 proposed districts would provide the "realistic chance for the minority community to elect its candidate of choice," as required by the federal Voting Rights Act, said Walters, a former assistant counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People who was instrumental in creating a legislative district on the Eastern Shore to benefit black candidates in 1994.

"You could easily end up with a 50/50 council in terms of a black-white split," said Willis, a former Maryland secretary of state. "It's quite a mystery why there isn't more political reaction considering it's the most important structural change to the City Council in over 30 years."

O'Malley and City Solicitor Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr. repeatedly have demonstrated that the city's plan was designed to withstand such legal challenges.

The council's independent consultant, Harry S. Johnson, concurs. Johnson, an attorney with Zollicoffer's previous employer, Whiteford, Taylor & Preston, has also represented the city solicitor.

Tried to be fair

Councilwoman Stephanie C. Rawlings Blake, co-chairwoman of the redistricting committee, said Johnson's opinion is unbiased and that the mayor and council have done everything they can to develop a fair map.

"I'm concerned that the 14 single-member districts will hurt minorities," Rawlings Blake said.

But she said those unhappy with the proposal "have not come out and presented a better plan than what we have now."

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