Evil genius: It takes true artists to pull off this kind of carving

October 11, 2011|By Doug Miller, dmiller@patuxent.com

Unlike the frequent school redistricting that puts parents in a frenzy every few years, the realignment of legislative districts for the federal, state and local governments only happens once every 10 years. But perhaps for that very reason, emotions surrounding it can run almost as high.

That time is upon us now, and we've begun to hear the predictable (and often valid) claims of partisan manipulation.

The high-profile piece is what will happen to the congressional districts, which the state legislature will determine in a special session that begins Oct. 17. Republican Roscoe Bartlett, who has represented Western Maryland in the U.S. House since 1993, figures to be the big loser.

Bartlett and other GOP figures are objecting, but their minority status gives them little leverage. Most observers predict Gov. Martin O'Malley will propose and legislature will approve, more or less as is, the map devised by the governor's hand-picked committee. The General Assembly will vote on the reconfiguration of state legislative districts this winter.

Both maps are drawing fire, not just from Republicans but from nonpartisan good-government advocates who object to the bare-faced gerrymandering they would impose.

Common Cause, whose agenda revolves around election reform and stemming the influence of special-interest money in American politics (radicals!), notes that the two proposed maps would move 30 percent of Maryland residents into new districts, a terrifically large portion.

Greg Rabidoux, Common Cause's national redistricting director, told me that, as gerrymandering goes, "Maryland is right up there" with the worst of them. It's almost as bad, he said, as Texas, where a Republican power structure has its thumb on the scale much as Democratic bosses do here.

Rabidoux said the answer to breaking the cycle is truly independent redistricting committees, formed using strict criteria that weed out partisan agendas. He points to Iowa and California as states that have made great strides.

Common Cause officials also note that more Maryland counties will be carved up under the proposed maps. One of them is Howard, which instead of being shared by two congresspeople will be divvied up among three under this plan.

"When you cross those boundaries, you're dividing people and diluting their power," said Susan Wichmann, executive director of Common Cause Maryland.

"There were 12 public hearings on these maps," she added. "None of the citizens who participated in those hearings had access to the maps. The politicians did."

Population shifts found in the decennial census also form the basis of the revision of County Council districts. A bipartisan committee voted 4-3, along party lines, Oct. 5 to recommend a plan known as Map 201. Its chief detractors appear to be some folks who would be separated from the rest of Ellicott City and put into a Columbia-based district. As one letter to the editor put it, "While Columbia is a wonderful place to visit … its local issues and challenges are vastly different from those of my Ellicott City neighborhood."

Meanwhile, there's also a redistricting of sorts afoot with regard to the county Board of Education. Until now, we've always elected all the members of the (now seven-member) board at large. Now Del. Frank Turner has sponsored a bill — which he wants to add to the October special session, as if it's vital that this change happen before November 2012 — that would implement the recommendation of a committee appointed by County Executive Ken Ulman to change that system.

In order to foster racial, economic and geographic diversity on the board, the committee proposes to have one board member elected from each of the five County Council districts. That much makes sense. Getting a read on each of the eight or 10 school board candidates on the ballot every other November has always been a chore anyway.

But Turner's bill would also give the county executive authority to appoint the other two board members, and that's a lousy idea. It would remove a level of accountability and take power from the electorate. As desirable as a diverse board might be, it isn't worth it if that's the price.

And there's a simple and reasonable compromise that would foster diversity while preserving democratic rights, and would also assuage those — including the current board members — who still think having each board member looking after every school is the way to go: Elect the remaining two board members at large.

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