Redistricting Baltimore Schmoke draws the lines -- and draws some criticism


MAYOR Schmoke and critics of his redistricting plan agree on the obvious: that Baltimore's 62 percent black population is not reflected on the City Council, where only seven of 19 members are black.

But that's where the harmony ends. Schmoke says that any change in the council's racial composition must come from strong candidates and organizations and better black voter participation.

But others say that Schmoke, the city's first elected black mayor, should have used his power to draw district lines to create more districts with large black majorities, which would have all but ensured the election of more blacks to the council.

As a result, some critics see Schmoke's redistricting plan -- which proposes only minor changes to the lines of Baltimore's six council districts -- as a sop to the city's white political leaders. Some even think the plan was crafted explicitly to smooth Schmoke's road to re-election this fall. Schmoke dismisses such talk.

At the press conference where he unveiled his plan, Schmoke defended his decision by pointing out that redistricting is a more complex process than many people think. It is closely guided by case law and the City Charter, he said.

"If I was just acting politically, there would be a different map," Schmoke said.

But one complicating factor Schmoke did not talk about was probably as big as any in his decision: A redistricting plan has to be palatable to the current council to be sure of being enacted.

And, Schmoke implied, any plan that dramatically altered the configuration of districts to increase the chances of adding blacks to the council would not have met that test.

The mayor said his plan, which would leave three predominantly black districts, two mostly white ones and nudge a sixth district from a small white majority into racial balance, makes sense both legally and politically.

"The lines on a map don't guarantee any particular racial composition in the council," the mayor said.

Of course, he is wrong about that. Blacks have never filled council seats in half the city: the 1st, 3rd and 6th districts. And those districts have traditionally had white majorities.

That happens because blacks, while they vote in the same and even better proportions than whites in hotly contested citywide contests, suffer a substantial drop-off in participation in some parts of the city when it comes to local races.

NAACP president Arthur Murphy says this is because of the dominating political clubs and because of black frustration in in places like the 3rd and 6th districts.

Conversely, white candidates in districts with strong black majorities -- the 5th and the 2nd -- have benefited from coalition politics. Those are the only two districts where the dominant political organizations field racially integrated tickets. And it is no coincidence that they are the districts with integrated council representation.

Schmoke insists that blacks can break new ground under his plan, especially in the 3rd District, which would be better than 40 percent black, and the 6th, which would be about 51 percent black. After all, the top three vote-getters in each district serve on the council. And a good candidate will increase voter participation in council races, he says.

Also, the changing racial face of some districts, coupled with the mayor's small changes in the district lines, may even prompt the entrenched political clubs in those districts to consider fielding integrated tickets, Schmoke says.

The NAACP, for one, thinks Schmoke is too optimistic.

It says the mayor should have drawn a map creating four districts with black "super-majorities" -- 65 percent or better. It says anything less will not produce further integration on the council. It cites Baltimore's political history as proof.

"Without super-majorities, there won't be any integrated tickets unless political leaders in those areas have a major heart transplant," says Murphy, who is among those threatening to sue if the council approves Schmoke's plan.

Paul Weisengoff, a longtime South Baltimore delegate, and one of those people whom Murphy thinks needs a new heart, says his organization will field a black candidate only when one emerges who "works the whole district," not just some black neighborhoods.

"I don't think it's fair to say that you have to have 65 percent black to win in a district," Weisengoff says. "I think the mayor took a reasonable approach."

Michael A. Fletcher is a reporter for The Evening Sun.

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