Some Marylanders question odd pairings in proposed new congressional map

Jim Schillinger, a fourth-generation farmer from Severn, has occasionally tussled with politicians who don't understand the first thing about crop yields or the rising cost of fertilizer. When he tries to explain his concerns, it's as if they don't speak his language.

So when Schillinger studies the proposed boundaries for Maryland's eight congressional districts and sees that his 136-acre farm in Anne Arundel County would be lumped with densely populated Prince George's, it doesn't inspire confidence that his voice would be heard in Washington.

"These people have different opinions than what these people have up here," Schillinger says, pointing to a map of the redrawn 4th District. "They're going to have different ideas — the city people — versus what we have."

As a byproduct of their effort to bolster political advantage through the once-in-a-decade redistricting process, Maryland Democrats have created some odd pairings: farms mixed with suburbs, city centers combined with small towns and — most important from a political perspective — deeply conservative areas tied to staunchly liberal enclaves.

The juxtapositions are causing some voters across the state to question how any lawmaker could adequately represent such disparate communities.

"The citizens of northern Baltimore County have different issues than the citizens of Baltimore City," Dennis Wilhelm of rural Parkton wrote state officials recently, one of hundreds of Marylanders who have weighed in on the new map.

Wilhelm said he is concerned about being represented by the same congressman as Baltimore, Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings. He is now represented by Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Western Maryland Republican.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, unveiled Saturday a final version of the proposed congressional districts to be presented to the General Assembly, which is to convene Monday for a special session to approve the map. The new districts — which by law must be redrawn after each Census to reflect population shifts — will govern Maryland's elections to Congress for the next 10 years, starting with the April 3 primary election.

To be sure, the current congressional map — crafted in 2002 under Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening — contains many similarly unusual political and geographic unions. The current map, Democratic officials said, was an obvious starting point from which to develop the new districts — as opposed to starting over.

Joseph C. Bryce, O'Malley's top legislative aide, said Maryland's unusual shape — further complicated by the Chesapeake Bay — makes it difficult to draw square, uniform districts without throwing far more voters under new representation. He said an advisory committee took cultural differences into account in submitting a proposed map to O'Malley.

"You try and take everything into account and put the best balance of those interests together that you can," Bryce said.

The proposed boundaries have come under fire from some Democratic politicians — notably Rep. Donna F. Edwards, a black lawmaker from Prince George's — who contend that the redrawn map would dilute the power of minority voters by splitting African-American and Hispanic communities into multiple districts.

The Maryland chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has threatened to sue the state over the issue unless O'Malley makes changes to the proposal.

Less attention has been given to the potential merging of communities or division of others. Under the committee's proposal, about 30 percent of Maryland's residents would find themselves in a new district, sometimes with neighbors who would appear to have little in common.

Some Hispanic groups in Montgomery County, for instance, say they are worried about being joined in a new 8th District with conservative Frederick County, where officials have crafted policies that target illegal immigrants.

To shoehorn Democratic voters into Bartlett's Western Maryland district, mapmakers drew a new 6th District that would include mountainous Garrett County and suburban Montgomery.

And Central Maryland's 3rd District, which is oddly shaped already, on the new map would snake through four counties and the city of Baltimore.

Voters who spoke to The Baltimore Sun frequently raised concerns that were more cultural than political.

In the proposed new 4th District, the busy thoroughfares of Hyattsville and Cheverly in Prince George's County would give way to two-lane roads dotted with farms as the district meanders into Anne Arundel. According to census data, the median household income in Anne Arundel County is $79,843, compared with $69,545 in Prince George's. The homeownership rate is about 10 percentage points higher in Anne Arundel. The average commute is seven minutes shorter.

And while the new map would group Anne Arundel with the Washington suburbs, data shows that nearly 7,000 more Anne Arundel residents commute to Baltimore for work than to Washington.

Anne Arundel is currently represented by four House members, none of whom lives in the county.

In interviews across the state, many Marylanders were uncertain of the name of their representative in Washington and said they're not keeping track of the proposed changes. But when shown maps of the current and proposed districts, voters often reacted to the changes negatively.

"Anne Arundel County's needs are much different from Prince George's County's needs," said John Cook, 50, of Millersville, who was sipping iced tea at Kaufmann's Tavern, just east of Odenton.

Cook, who works in construction and frequently goes to Prince George's County on business, suggested that Anne Arundel County's cost of living is growing faster — Prince George's is already high — and that many neighborhoods in the Washington suburbs have been hit harder by the nation's foreclosure crisis.

He contends that it is difficult for lawmakers to represent disparate communities.

Emily Snellings, 36, a school social worker from Odenton, acknowledges the differences between the two counties but said their needs are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

"As long as [lawmakers] familiarize themselves with both areas and understand the differences, then I don't think it's a problem," said Snellings, a Democratic-leaning voter who says education and the economy are among her top concerns.

Another unusual pairing is shaping up in the 8th District, home to Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a rising star in Democratic politics on Capitol Hill. His district now comprises southwestern Montgomery County, but under the new plan would extend into conservative Carroll County and north in Frederick County to the Pennsylvania line.

All of Frederick and Carroll counties are now represented by Bartlett.

Jim Bauch, a 56-year-old contractor, shook his head as he viewed the proposed new map outside the bank in New Windsor, west of Westminster. He said he goes to Montgomery County occasionally for work but most of his neighbors do not.

"What do they call it, gerrymandering?" Bauch said. "I don't think [Carroll] is really connected to Montgomery County. Most people around here try to stay away from D.C."

Residents of Sykesville in southwestern Carroll County said the area doesn't really resemble Western Maryland or Montgomery County. Some commuters head toward Baltimore each weekday, they said, while others go regularly to Washington.

"That is just — that's off the wall," said Madeleine Blake, a retired Sykesville resident who has lived in the area for more than 25 years as she studied a copy of the map on Main Street.

As a Democrat, she said, she has no political objection to being represented by Van Hollen. But that doesn't mean she would be comfortable with the change.

"I'd be glad to have a Democrat," she said, "but I don't think that's the way to do it."