When the Greater Baltimore Committee asked a roundtable of CEOs for ideas on how to improve Maryland's business climate, many of the answers were unsurprising — lower taxes, a more predictable regulatory system and the like. But at least one of them wasn't so intuitively obvious: reforming the way Maryland draws its legislative districts.
The executives' reasoning, according to GBC head Don Fry, is that giving the task of redrawing political boundaries after the census to an independent commission rather than elected officials would reduce partisanship and increase the likelihood that lawmakers would give serious consideration to a wide variety of perspectives. If districts aren't drawn to give an inherent advantage to one party or another, politicians might find themselves less beholden to the base voters who turn out for primaries and more attuned to the broader electorate in all its ideological diversity.
The GBC commissioned the firm Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies to include a question about redistricting on its recent state-wide poll, and the results were striking: 73 percent favored an independent redistricting commission, including 68 percent of Democrats, 78 percent of Republicans and 83 percent of independents.
The trouble is that the only way to change the process in Maryland is for the very people who now control redistricting to voluntarily cede power. The procedure for redistricting is spelled out in the state constitution — after every census, the governor prepares a plan for the new districts, and the legislature has 45 days to adopt its own version or let his go into law. Changing it would require an amendment, and the only way to put one on the ballot is through a three-fifths majority of both chambers of the legislature.
It's going to take a lot more than some eye-popping poll numbers to get Maryland's Democrats to lay down their arms, particularly given voters' decision last year to uphold the state's contorted Congressional district maps in a referendum — a vote that likely stemmed more from apathy and disengagement than from well informed support for the gerrymandered boundaries. It is, frankly, going to require a good bit more political savvy than Maryland's business community has typically mustered in Annapolis.
To make this kind of reform happen, the GBC needs to take a page out of the playbook of the state's most successful progressive activists. And there is actually a book that might prove useful — "The DeMarco Factor" by Michael Pertschuk chronicles the tactics of Annapolis uber-nudge Vincent DeMarco in pushing through progressive legislation on health care and other issues. (Mr. DeMarco's success in lobbying for gun control this year came too late for publication.)
Herewith, the short version: Build a coalition of groups and individuals who are committed to a specific policy goal. Use public polling to show not only that people support your idea but that they will also be more likely to vote for someone who feels the same. Get candidates for office to commit to voting for your idea, and once they are elected, use public rallies, paid and earned media and lobbying to hold them to it.
It certainly wouldn't be easy in the case of redistricting reform, but conditions now are more ripe for that kind of effort than they have been in the past. There's the potential for a real odd-fellows coalition if the business community teams up with left-leaning good government types. The recent debacle in Washington has given the public a sense of what terrible consequences unchecked gerrymandering can produce. The 2014 election features a wide-open race for governor and, thanks to redistricting, much more intense than usual competition for seats in the General Assembly. That means a lot of candidates are going to be looking for ways to differentiate themselves.
Moreover, there is now evidence that the state's Democratic establishment need not fear the consequences of giving up power over redistricting. The New York Times reported on Saturday that since California adopted such an independent redistricting commission, its legislature has grown even more heavily Democratic, yet more moderate. (California also adopted new rules in which the top two vote-getters in the primary face off in the general election regardless of party, another reform that would be helpful in Maryland.)
We have long advocated for reforms to Maryland's redistricting and electoral processes as a means to ensure a broadly representative government. The issue deserves to be at the forefront of the 2014 election, and we urge the GBC and other groups follow through.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun