This year's election will be the third and last based on Howard County Council district lines drawn strictly along party lines a decade ago by a 3-2 vote and won by council Democrats after the last census. Republicans say they want to "take back the county" this year so they can redraw the lines themselves.
That issue became clear at a fundraiser Sept. 16 for Republican Robert L. Flanagan. The candidate — former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s transportation secretary — is hoping to replace Democrat Courtney Watson as the council member for District 1, covering Ellicott City and Elkridge.
"The goal on the county level is to take control of the council," Flanagan told a group of about 65 Republicans in the Fulton home of Louis M. Pope, a former county GOP chairman who is now a Republican National Committee member for Maryland. "We would have control of redistricting and we would do it in a fair way as opposed to the folks who did it in the past."
Democrats insist they followed the law, and fairly.
"That's politics," said Howard County Democratic Party Chairman Michael McPherson. "You do what you can do to protect your incumbents and your party."
Flanagan said later that he'd rather see more districts competitive for both parties. "Creating districts that are monopolized by one party or the other are not healthy for our democratic system," he said.
Pope, who was county GOP chairman at the last redistricting, said there was some play between Districts 3 and 5. Democrats shaved a precinct east of U.S. 29 from District 3 and pushed it into District 5, which covers the vast western county where Republicans typically dominate.
That made District 3 a bit safer for Democrats, and then-Councilman Guy Guzzone was re-elected in 2002. When he moved on to the House of Delegates in 2006, Democrat Jennifer Terrasa easily won his old council seat.
Republican Councilman Greg Fox, who now represents District 5, said the Democrats used redistricting to push his Fulton home out of District 4, where he had run in 1998 and felt he had a fighting chance to win a "Democratic" seat. Ken Ulman, now county executive, won the seat in 2002, and Mary Kay Sigaty won it four years ago.
"You shouldn't be shoving all the Democrats or Republicans into districts" dominated by one party or the other, he said. Fox argued that District 3 has far fewer registered voters than District 5, though the district lines are drawn based on population, not registered voters.
State Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, who held that District 5 seat in 2001, said he felt Democrats unfairly used a natural gas pipeline as a western boundary for District 1 in Ellicott City specifically to include Courtney Watson's home in District 1. Watson was a community activist then and in 2002 was elected as a nonpartisan school board member. She won her County Council seat in 2006.
But Kittleman said using the pipeline split a community, which isn't good. "I'm confident that if Republicans were in control, we would not cut up communities of interest," he said.
Watson said she didn't contemplate a run for County Council until 2005, four years after redistricting. If re-elected, she said, "I will certainly do my part to ensure the integrity of the process, and make sure the outcome represents true representation for the citizens"
"The council districts were compact and contiguous and relatively the same size," said Guzzone. "If anybody had a problem they could have taken us to court. Nobody did,"
He said District 3 was left a little low on population to provide for new residents expected to move into the developments of Emerson over the coming decade.
An appointed seven-member citizens commission makes recommendations on how to adjust the boundary lines to reflect demographic changes in the previous decade, such as the new residents in Emerson, or scores of new homes built along the U.S. 1 corridor. But the majority party gets to name the member who becomes the deciding vote on the commission, and it has the final say when the council votes on the final plan. The Democrat-dominated General Assembly does the same thing for legislative and congressional districts. But in the end, each party tries to adjust the lines to maximize its power.
Watson, a more conservative Democrat who worked closely with District 1 Republican Christopher Merdon on school crowding issues while he was a council member, won Merdon's former council seat in 2006, giving Democrats their current 4-1 majority. Each district was supposed to be within 5 percent of 49,568 residents. Democrats said they stuck to that rule.
Flanagan also got an endorsement at the Republican event from Merdon — the Republican county executive candidate in 2006 — and Charles C. Feaga, who served 14 years on the council and lost to Dennis R. Schrader for the party's nomination for executive in 1998.