O'Malley signs congressional map into law

Gov. Martin O'Malley signed into law Thursday a new congressional map that gives Democrats a shot at picking up another member of the U.S. House of Representatives, scoring a political victory here and adding to his burgeoning national profile.

The governor's plan steamed through the General Assembly in four days, with Democratic leaders able to defuse criticism from some members of the Legislative Black Caucus and avoid protracted debate by Republicans.


Unless altered in a court, the map will govern Maryland's elections to Congress for the next 10 years, starting with the April 3 primary.

O'Malley called the map "fair," but he acknowledged the consternation that surrounded the process. "I've never been through a redistricting process that is not disruptive and controversial," he said.


The map, drawn by a panel appointed by the governor, pours Democrats into Western Maryland's traditionally Republican 6th District. In doing that, the map divides Montgomery County among three districts, which critics argued dilutes the power of minority voters.

The new boundaries set the stage for a nationally watched congressional race in the new 6th, one of the few places in the country where Democrats have a chance to snatch a traditionally GOP seat. Already Thursday, two Democrats announced they are eyeing a challenge to Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett: former Montgomery County Councilwoman Duchy Trachtenberg and state Sen. Rob Garagiola.

The Maryland map has captured the attention of third-party political groups on all sides of the political spectrum that pumped millions of dollars of television advertising into a handful of competitive districts in 2010. The map is a plus for O'Malley within his party, analysts said.

"Being able to steer it through the process in a way that creates a potential pickup for the party is significant and will be noticed," said Mo Elleithee, a Democratic campaign strategist in Washington. "It's creating a lot of potential buzz."

That added attention comes as O'Malley has stepped up his efforts in Washington, tangling with national GOP leaders on Sunday talk shows, meeting with President Barack Obama and, earlier this year, speaking to the Democratic caucus on Capitol Hill in the middle of the debate over raising the nation's debt ceiling.

All of it is part of his role as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, a job O'Malley assumed last December, but it has nevertheless fueled speculation that he is eyeing the 2016 presidential election. O'Malley is often mentioned as part of that still-to-emerge field, along with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Longtime Democratic consultant Bob Shrum said O'Malley has a lot of "innate assets" that make him right for the national stage. The redistricting effort will be seen as a demonstration of the governor's ability to advance controversial legislation. "I don't think that this is key, but it is just another proof of how effective he can be," Shrum said.

In Maryland, O'Malley is now charging ahead on a priority that has eluded national Democratic leaders: passing a jobs bill.


"Given the many issues likely to come up in session, it is a good way to go into the fall," said Joseph C. Bryce, O'Malley's top legislative aide, noting that groundwork on an array of issues must be laid before the annual 90-day legislative session begins in January.

During the bill signing for the new map, O'Malley spoke of his economic stimulus initiative. The plan, which he has so far described only in broad terms, would involve raising taxes to fund public works projects that he has suggested could reach into the billions and put tens of thousands of people to work.

O'Malley has been referring to the state's backlog of road repairs and school construction as urgently needed public works projects. In Annapolis this week, the administration began to build a case. One briefing outlined $13 billion worth of capital and maintenance work needed in the state's six largest school systems. Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley testified that granting just the top-priority project to each of the state's counties would stretch into the tens of billions of dollars.

Any glow from the special session could vanish if the map does not hold up in a legal challenge. The Fannie Lou Hamer political action committee has said it will file a lawsuit and is seeking help from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Maryland Republican Party.

The Maryland attorney general's office issued a letter Thursday aimed at dispelling legal concerns. The letter says that the office found "no violation" of the federal Voting Rights Act and "no reason to believe" the bill "constitutes a racial gerrymander."

O'Malley signed the bill into law shortly before noon, after the Senate quickly approved technical changes to the map.