In redistricting, Democrats look for electoral opportunities

WASHINGTON — — They couldn't beat him on Election Day, but Democrats will get another crack at Republican Rep. Andy Harris this fall — a year before voters head back to the polls in 2012.

With Maryland's 2011 legislative session now over, lawmakers are shifting their attention to congressional redistricting. And if the past is a guide, the Democratic leaders who will draw the new boundaries for the state's eight congressional districts later this year will be looking to eke out any partisan advantage they can.

That means Harris, the Baltimore County lawmaker who has represented Maryland's 1st Congressional District since January, is likely to be in for a fight.

"I think there's an opportunity there," said Rep. Steny Hoyer of Southern Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House of Representatives.

Asked if Harris' district would be a focus of the redistricting process, Hoyer said, "I think the answer to that is yes."

Maryland, like most other states, must redraw congressional boundaries each decade to keep the population evenly divided among the districts.

Based on the 2010 Census, each of Maryland's districts should be home to 721,529 people. Given uneven population growth in the state over the past decade, balancing them will require substantial redrawing.

Hoyer's district, for example, has grown by 16 percent since 2000, to more than 768,000 people. In contrast, the district represented by fellow Democrat Elijah E. Cummings, which includes portions of Baltimore City and Baltimore and Howard counties, grew by less than 1 percent, to fewer than 665,000.

Precisely where the lines are drawn will make all the difference.

Democrats enjoy a 2-1 advantage in voter registration in Maryland, but they have used redistricting to seize a 6-2 majority in the state's House delegation. The party also holds both of Maryland's Senate seats.

Scooping heavily Democratic neighborhoods into Republican-leaning districts could have a big impact in the 2012 congressional election. Likewise, concentrating Republican voters in a handful of districts, or dividing them up among several, could diminish their influence.

"It's the only thing that gets closer to the bone than money in politics," said Ronald M. Kreitner, who oversaw Maryland's planning agency during the 1992 redistricting.

While Congress and the courts have set some standards for redistricting — the Voting Rights Act of 1965, for example, forbids the disenfranchisement of minority communities — they have left plenty of room for creativity.

Maryland Democrats have used redistricting to maximize their power in Congress. The map developed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening after the 2000 Census helped increase the number of Maryland Democrats in the House from four to six in the 2002 elections, even as Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. became the first Republican elected governor since Spiro T. Agnew in 1966.

Using the same map, Democrats made it seven in 2008, when Democrat Frank Kratovil edged Harris to win the seat long held by Republican Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest.

"Clearly, they're going to attempt to work out what they think is going to be the best plan — something that's going to maximize the number of winnable seats in Maryland," said Adam Hoffman, a political scientist at Salisbury University. "The goal is to protect those Democratic seats, and a side goal is to possibly pick up one more."

Harris trounced Kratovil in their 2010 rematch to take back the sprawling 1st District, which includes the Eastern Shore and parts of Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Harford counties.

Now the conservative GOP freshman could be a target.

"I'm waiting, like everyone else, to see what the powers that be in Annapolis" will do with the maps, said Harris, who beat Kratovil, 54 percent to 42 percent, last year. "That's the calculation that the Democrats are going to have to make. … I spend my time taking care of my district."

The 1st District, where Democrats and Republicans are evenly split, but where voters returned the moderate Gilchrest to Congress for 18 years, has proved something of a bellwether in recent elections.

Kratovil captured the seat in 2008 as part of the Democratic wave that swept President Barack Obama into office. The national momentum swung back in favor of the GOP last year, and Harris won the seat easily.

Kratovil said he too will be keeping an eye on the redistricting process. He has not ruled out another run for the seat. Asked whether redistricting would influence his decision, he said, "It's a factor. I wouldn't say it's a controlling factor."

Under the Maryland Constitution, the governor is responsible for submitting a district map to the General Assembly.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, plans to convene an advisory group to develop the new boundaries. House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, both Democrats, will also provide input.

None of the key players are discussing their intentions publicly.

An O'Malley spokesman said the governor will hold a series of public hearings this summer and call for a special session of the General Assembly in September to vote on the plan.

Spokesman Shaun Adamec said in a statement that the administration has not "begun to dig into the details to determine the extent to which a major overhaul is necessary."

Busch and Miller did not return repeated calls seeking comment.

Armchair redistricting has already begun in Washington. Some speculate that the mapmakers could shift Democratic neighborhoods from the safe seats held by Reps. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and John Sarbanes into the 1st District.

Hoyer said delegation members have met already to discuss the issue.

"Mr. Harris now lives west of Dutch Ruppersberger," Hoyer said, suggesting a possible justification for redrawing the lines. Harris' district lies mostly east of Ruppersberger's.

The state's other Republican congressman Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, might also be a target. Bartlett won a 10th term last fall with more than 61 percent of the vote, and his Western Maryland district, as currently drawn, is a GOP stronghold.

In a statement, Bartlett said: "District boundaries should respect community interests by keeping counties and municipalities intact to the greatest extent possible."

Maryland's current congressional map is a jigsaw puzzle of interlocking districts. But from the Democrats' perspective, those oddly shaped boundaries have done their job.

Under the previous map, the Maryland House delegation was divided evenly between four Democrats and Republicans.

The Glendening map added Democratic voters to the Baltimore County-based district held by then-Congressman Ehrlich, and included left-leaning Takoma Park and Silver Spring in the Montgomery County-based district held by Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella. Those changes cleared the way for victories by Democrats Ruppersberger and Chris Van Hollen.

Johns Hopkins political scientist Matthew A. Crenson says Democrats might have already maximized their opportunities.

Having "crammed" as many Republicans as they could into the districts now represented by Bartlett and Harris, he said, the Democrats' only option would be to move some of those GOP voters back into Democratic districts. That could make those districts more vulnerable to competition.

"There's not too much they can do," Crenson said.

In an effort to distance the redistricting process from politics, seven states now use an independent commission to draw congressional districts, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some lawmakers, including Harris, have called for Maryland to adopt a similar approach.

But even in those states, which include New Jersey, Arizona and California, the process can be messy and, frequently, political, said Tim Storey, a redistricting expert with the conference.

"It's all about politics," he said, "no matter who draws the lines."