Baltimore council redistricting plan sparks controversy

As the deadline for redrawing City Council districts nears, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's plan is being criticized by some council members, community leaders and residents who chafe at the boundary changes and say the new districts could hurt the political prospects of blacks and Hispanics.

The former president of the Baltimore NAACP branch has warned that the plan could be seen as "packing" — limiting the voting power of blacks by concentrating them into one district. And a councilman has raised concerns that the plan could result in "cracking" Latino residents in Upper Fells Point and surrounding neighborhoods, by dividing them among three districts.

"The mayor's map is illegal and a flagrant insult to the 43,000 residents of this district," said Councilwoman Belinda Conaway, who is dismayed that parts of predominantly white Remington and Hampden will be excised from the 7th District under the mayor's plan.

Still, a majority of council members have signaled their support for Rawlings-Blake's plan, and final approval of the new map is likely to come next week.

"You're not going to have a perfect map," said Council Vice President Edward Reisinger. "I've been through redistricting three times. Everybody isn't gonna be happy."

Rawlings-Blake and the council have been under a tight deadline to redraw the city's 14 districts. The city charter requires the mayor to sign the new map into law by April 1, which forced Rawlings-Blake to introduce her plan before census data was released and amend it after the population figures were made final. The new districts will be used in September's citywide primary.

Under the mayor's plan, Northeast Baltimore's 3rd District would be the smallest, with 43,040 residents, and West Baltimore's 9th District would be the largest, with 46,849. All the districts are within 5 percent of the ideal size, according to city data.

Political insiders see Rawlings-Blake's map as particularly beneficial to two allies on the council — Reisinger and Councilman William H. Cole IV — as well as to a mayoral staffer who is expected to run for an open seat in East Baltimore. Rawlings-Blake says that the map apportions the districts fairly, reunites some neighborhoods that were divided by past redistricting plans and reflects the overall racial makeup of the city.

Still, residents of East Baltimore's Butchers Hill and Upper Fells Point neighborhoods are battling to stay in the 1st District, which includes Canton and Harbor East and is represented by Councilman James B. Kraft. Under Rawlings-Blake's plan, portions of both neighborhoods would be moved into the 13th District.

Residents of Butchers Hill and Upper Fells Point fear that splitting their districts will reverse gains the neighborhoods have made over the past two decades.

"It's almost punishing a neighborhood that has spent so much time improving," said Tracy Gosson, a Butchers Hill resident since 1995. "It's just a slap in the face."

Gosson, the founding director of Live Baltimore, who now runs her own marketing company, is troubled by the mayor's plan for her section of East Baltimore. She says Butchers Hill has much more in common with the waterfront communities than with the neighborhoods to the north.

"I'm glad to see she's taking care of a potential candidate and not her voting residents," said Gosson. "This is a community that votes, and it's a community that donates money. This is going to be a definite deal-breaker for me for her campaign."

Area residents have sent a sheaf of letters to Rawlings-Blake and the council asking to remain in the 1st District. They have spoken passionately and frequently at public hearings on the plan.

"You should be ashamed of yourselves," Butchers Hill resident Terry Ehrenfeld chided council members at a hearing last week. "You talk about the importance of neighborhoods, but we're being split down the middle for no good reason. This is blatant gerrymandering."

Critics of the new map — including some council members — accuse Rawlings-Blake of redrawing boundaries to benefit her allies. Under the plan, Cole's district would pick up Locust Point and southern Federal Hill from Reisinger while turning Reservoir Hill over to Conaway's district. That would give Cole, Rawlings-Blake's closest ally on the council, a concentration of the city's wealthiest business areas. It would also increase the white population of his already predominantly white district.

Meanwhile, Reisinger would see his district expand to the north and west to make his Morrell Park home more central. Reisinger eked out a narrow victory over his opponent in 2007, and political insiders see him as having a better shot at re-election among voters in the Southwest.

The plan also shifts the boundaries for East Baltimore's 2nd District, where Brandon M. Scott, an employee in Rawlings-Blake's Office of Neighborhoods, is widely expected to run for the seat that Nicholas D'Adamo has held for more than two decades. The new map increases the percentage of black residents in the district, potentially increasing support for Scott, who is black.

The process of redrawing city districts has been complicated by a protracted wait for prison population data. Under a law passed last year, prisoners are being counted at their last home addresses — a change that raises the city's population count.

About 5,700 Baltimore residents are currently in prison, according to data state planning officials released this week. More than one-sixth — or 1,032 — are from West Baltimore's 9th District, which is represented by Councilman William "Pete" Welch. East Baltimore's 13th District, represented by Councilman Warren Branch, and Conaway's 7th District also have sizable populations of incarcerated residents.

Information about 1,500 federal prisoners in Cumberland has yet to be included because of a legal challenge from the Department of Justice, state planning spokesman Andrew Ratner said.

Conaway, one of three council members who opposed Rawlings-Blake's plan in a preliminary vote Monday, says the new map would violate the Civil Rights Act by further concentrating the percentage of black residents in her district.

She reached an agreement with Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke and Councilman Carl Stokes, who represent adjacent districts, that would have allowed portions of Remington and Hampden to remain in the 7th District. Although their agreement would have affected only those three districts, the majority of council members voted against Conaway's plan.

Some council members, including Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, Cole, and Robert W. Curran, said they voted against the amendments because Conaway had not briefed them on her changes in advance. Curran said he would have voted against Conaway's plan even if she had met with him because he wanted to support Rawlings-Blake's map without any changes.

"This is a battle for the mayor to have control of the map," he said. "I'm not going to abandon the mayor, because she's been good to me in my district."

Some civil rights leaders also see problems in the plan, particularly in Conaway's 7th District. Former Baltimore National Association for the Advancement of Colored People branch President Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham sent a letter to city officials warning that the plan could be seen as diluting the voting power of blacks.

Cheatham wrote that he agreed with Conaway that "packing seems to have taken place, starting with seemingly protecting the 11th District, which is having a trickle-down effect on the other districts."

"Packing" or "cracking" are violations of the federal Civil Rights Act, but they can be hard to prove in court, said Allison Riggs, an attorney who specialized in voting rights for the Southern Coalition. Cases can be lengthy and pricey and must meet narrowly defined criteria to prove that the redistricting plan dilutes a minority group's political power, she said.

Kraft, who co-chairs the council's redistricting committee with Conaway, has cautioned at public hearings that he believes the map could not withstand a legal challenge.

"I'm concerned about the dilution of the Hispanic/ Latino vote," said Kraft, adding that the map makes unnecessary changes. "As I understand the law, the best plan is the simplest plan that tries to maintain the districts as close to the existing boundaries as possible."

John Willis, a former Maryland secretary of state who is guiding the council through the redistricting, said he believes the plan is "presumptively legal" based on established case law.

But he cautioned that redistricting case law is constantly evolving and that this marks only the fourth time that the city has redrawn boundaries since the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

"I've been through this process before, and you can never predict what court systems will do," said Willis.