Political cartography has strange consequences

November 13, 2008|By JEAN MARBELLA | JEAN MARBELLA,jean.marbella@baltsun.com

After a lengthy labor, we can slap that 1st Congressional District baby on the bottom and declare: It's a Democrat.

The close and contentious race finally produced a winner Tuesday when Andy Harris conceded and Frank Kratovil declared victory, shifting the conservative-leaning district from Republican to Democratic hands for the first time since 1991.

If it's true that victory has many fathers but defeat is an orphan, the parentage of Kratovil's win would have to include sheer timing (it was a good year for Democrats overall), third-party spoilage (the Libertarian candidate siphoned off potential Harris votes) and the blessing of the departing incumbent (Wayne T. Gilchrest, jumping party lines).

But there is another, older parent - call it the grandfather - of this victory: the 2002 redistricting plan, which seems to have succeeded beyond even the wildest dreams of its architect, then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

Even back then, the redrawing of district lines came off as blatantly partisan - and personal - with the Democratic governor rewarding supporters with friendly territory and punishing opponents with decidedly more hostile playing fields.

But it's only now that the true measure of what redistricting has wrought is apparent. Before the plan, Maryland sent an equal number of Democrats and Republicans to the House of Representatives; now, with Kratovil's victory, it's a decidedly more lopsided 7-1 split.

Redistricting is a time-honored political exercise, mandated by law after every census to make sure that congressional apportionment reflects any population shifts in the intervening years. Ha! Such mischievous men, those writers of our Constitution. Given that it's politicians who redraw the map, it devolved almost immediately into an exercise that is part creative, free-form drawing and part cutthroat power-grabbing.

The result is a lot of districts whose shapes generally would not be found in nature, crossing over major thoroughfares and even bodies of water, picking up a stray patch here, dumping a block there.

You could probably use them in a Rorschach test and see what the weirdly shaped districts that result call to mind. Maryland's 1st, for example, which at one point was simply the Eastern Shore, morphed into a district that includes parts of Baltimore, Harford and Anne Arundel counties. With the Chesapeake Bay jutting through it, I see a sea horse.

But more amusing than the actual shapes are the motivations behind them. The 2nd District's boundaries were custom-drawn to play to the strengths of Democrat C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, then the Baltimore County executive, who won the seat previously held by Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who decided to run instead for governor.

The 8th District's boundaries were redrawn to take traditionally GOP precincts away from incumbent Republican Constance A. Morella and stick her with liberal Takoma Park and Silver Spring; it worked, and Democrat Chris Van Hollen now holds that seat.

But even Democrats weren't spared in the redistricting drama - Benjamin L. Cardin's 3rd District was reconfigured to take away some of his strongholds - apparently, went the scuttlebutt, as payback for Cardin floating the idea of running for governor against Glendening.

Still, redistricting doesn't always go as planned, and the law of unintended consequences takes over. That 1st District, for example, was designed to herd Republicans and conservatives into a single district lest they infect more reliably Democratic ones. But this year, after a bruising primary replaced the moderate Republican Gilchrest with the further-right Harris, the district went to the Democrat.

There's a moral to the story here, somewhere, or maybe several. Maybe it's more of a cautionary tale, something along the lines of doing unto others just in case they ever get the chance to do the same thing unto you. But of course, no one thinks much beyond the next election cycle, and pity the poor party that manages to grab power in between the every-10-years of the census.

The last redistricting came at the hands of Democrats - a five-member commission appointed by Glendening was charged with the mapmaking duties, and even they didn't agree entirely: Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, according to The Sun's coverage, dissented from the final proposal because it didn't help Democrats enough.

Both parties, of course, have used redistricting to further their own interests, to help friends cruise to easier victories and deny enemies a seat. Often they get away with it, given the fact that all this inside-baseball maneuvering tends to make the eyes of all but the politically geeky glaze over. Often, court battles will ensue - the 2002 redistricting plan for the General Assembly was dumped by the Maryland Court of Appeals.

But rarely does a redistricting plan draw more widespread interest. The most amusing spectacle came with the 2003 Texas redistricting saga, in which Republicans redrew the lines to increase their haul of seats, and Democrats fled the state - for hotels in Oklahoma, triggering FAA tracking of planes they might be on - to prevent the quorum needed to vote on the plan. (The Supreme Court ultimately upheld most of the plan, although its chief proponent, then U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, ended up indicted and leaving the House in disgrace.)

While Glendening's redistricting plan didn't trigger quite the political theater, it remains, six years later, our very own and rather dazzling example of the power of congressional cartography. I'm tempted to suggest that at least in Maryland, we retire the term "gerrymandering" - which derives from a circa 1800s Massachusetts governor named Elbridge Gerry who created a salamander-shaped district - and replace it with "glendendering."

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