Democrats eyeing Western Maryland

In redistricting, they see a chance to challenge Republican Bartlett

August 06, 2011|By Annie Linskey, The Baltimore Sun

POINT OF ROCKS — — Ed Coile and his husband are true-blue Democrats. But they were thinking about saving money, not their congressional representation, when they decided to move from Washington to conservative Frederick County last year.

"Politics just didn't play a role," said Coile, 52, after getting off the commuter train at the tiny red-brick MARC station in Western Maryland on the Virginia border. "This is where we could afford to buy a house."

Democratic strategists in this part of the state, however, are thinking an awful lot about transplants from the Washington area such as Coile and husband Barry Stampler.

The strategists see them as part of a steady northbound population migration that will color this part of the state more Democratic over time. They want to radically redraw Maryland's congressional map to transform the 6th District, which has sent conservative Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett to Washington for 10 terms, into a toss-up.

Or, in the words of Frederick County Democratic Chairwoman Myrna R. Whitworth, testifying at a recent redistricting hearing: "My job is to turn Frederick blue."

Conversations about maps will intensify over the next two months as Maryland politicians turn their attention to congressional redistricting, the once-a-decade process of adjusting political borders to accommodate changes in the state's population.

A five-member panel appointed by Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley is crisscrossing the state to hear opinions about redistricting. The panel, which includes state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch — both Democrats — is charged with recommending a map to O'Malley.

O'Malley could submit that plan or a map of his own to the General Assembly, which will meet in special session this fall to approve new districts.

The 9 percent growth recorded in Maryland in the 2010 Census means the state will retain its eight seats in the House of Representatives. But that doesn't mean the Maryland delegation will remain static: Redrawing the borders could give the state's majority Democrats a chance to unseat one of the two Republicans — or at least make their re-election much more difficult.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, has hinted that freshman Rep. Andy Harris, the Baltimore County Republican who represents the 1st Congressional District, would be the target.

Adding Democrats to the district could give former Rep. Frank M. Kratovil Jr. a shot at taking back the seat he held from 2009 to 2011. Kratovil has said he would consider the shape of the district in deciding whether to run again.

But after a series of redistricting meetings, it is clear that there is no consensus on that idea. Leaders in Prince George's County, a rich potential source of Democratic voters, have made it clear that they don't want to be part of the 1st District, which now is made up of the Eastern Shore and parts of Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Harford counties.

Western Maryland Democrats, meanwhile, want the mapmakers to target Bartlett.

The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter that tracks congressional and other elections, gives Maryland a 50-50 chance of drawing a new Democratic seat in the House.

Maryland is one of the few states nationwide in which Democrats have the power this year to redraw congressional districts in their favor. Republicans control the process in 18 states. Democrats oversee it in six. Others are either divided between the parties or use a nonpartisan commission.

With Republicans here largely sidelined — one of the five panel members is a former GOP lawmaker — the real argument in Maryland is between different segments of the Democratic Party.

At first blush, Western Maryland isn't an obvious place for Democrats to seek inroads.

The 6th District, made up of Allegany, Carroll, Frederick, Garrett and Washington counties plus parts of Baltimore, Harford and Montgomery counties, has been the most reliably Republican district in the state over the past two decades.

Even in years that were difficult for GOP candidates elsewhere, Bartlett, a member of the House Tea Party Caucus, has routinely won re-election by 20-point margins.

But Bartlett, 85, is a lackluster fundraiser, which has led some Democrats to argue that he would not have the means to introduce himself to a new group of voters should his district take a different shape.

Helping to fuel their optimism is the victory last fall by Democrat Ronald N. Young, a former Frederick mayor, over conservative Republican state Sen. Alex Mooney in Frederick and Washington counties.

Democratic Party strategists say the influx of 48,000 transplants from the capital area over the past decade is leading fast-growing Frederick County to tilt toward the politically liberal Washington suburbs.

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