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From Salamanders to Doughnuts: Redistricting Reshaped


To a political discipline named for the supple and vaguely sinister amphibian, the 1990s bring a kinder and gentler labeling based on junk food.

A former governor of Massachusetts named Gerry perfected the technique of drawing election district lines so erratically that they were likened to salamanders -- hence gerrymandering. These maps allowed the politically powerful to protect themselves with cushions of sympathetic voters. They could help their friends and punish their enemies.

The manipulative impulse lives, no doubt. But the shapes are changing. Some of the new districts will resemble doughnuts more than salamanders. And some of the map makers will have && different labels as well. Republicans and blacks will be important players -- and they may well be unofficial teammates -- in Maryland and elsewhere.

In the past, parties in power have had their way in such matters because they had more exclusive use of information gathered by their minions. They also had the personnel to crunch numbers and prepare maps.

This was before computers which now permit almost anyone to obtain the data and prepare a map. Court decisions based on the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and its subsequent amendments have brought judges and the U.S. Department of Justice into the act as well.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer's special five-member commission on redistricting met for the first time last week and scheduled 13 public hearings at which citizens may offer testimony -- and even maps of their own.

And in Ocean City yesterday, the Maryland Republican Party was to offer its version of the ideal new congressional district map.

New districts must be drawn in Maryland and all the other states this year to reapportion the population in accordance with the growth and decline of population as documented by the 1990 census. The target population of each congressional district in Maryland is 597,683 (one-eighth of the 1990 population of the state). Baltimore's Seventh District is more than 100,000 residents short. The Eighth District -- of which Montgomery County is the core -- stands more 70,000 residents over the goal at 669,764.

Each effort to reallocate the population for one district, of course, has implications for all the others. Where in Baltimore County, for example, will the district mappers go to add population for the Seventh District? Will they borrow from the Second -- and where will the Second be pushed? Can this be done without diluting black strength in the Seventh, which would be a violation of the Voting Rights Act?

Democrats retain line-drawing clout in Maryland and elsewhere by virtue of their dominance in legislatures and governors' mansions.

But the surging GOP has found new sources of power for redistricting thanks to its late party chairman, Lee Atwater, who saw how his party could reach out to blacks in a way that would undercut the Democrats' traditional redistricting momentum. In Louisiana, Illinois, Texas, Maryland and other states, pressure from the courts creates a rare opportunity for the GOP to make real world alliances with the last reliable bulwark of Democratic Party loyalty, the black voter.

The plan prepared by Maryland Republicans focuses on the possibility of creating a new black district in Prince George's County. It will almost certainly dilute Democratic voting strength in at surrounding districts -- where Republican candidates could suddenly have a better chance to win.

"This is our chance to try and level the playing field," says Clayton Yeutter, chairman of the Republican National Committee. Mr. Yeutter was careful to observe that the tilted playing field could be leveled for minority group members as well -- and perhaps in league with the GOP.

"There's an opportunity now," Mr. Yeutter told the National Federation of Republican Women recently, "to right all those wrongs and get fair and rational representation in the country in the coming decade."

The day of the doughnut is dawning.

After the 1980 census, Maryland's Seventh District became the center of a classic, although incomplete, doughnut -- blacks in the urban center, whites in surrounding areas. To withstand a court challenge, the Seventh Congressional District, based in Baltimore, was drawn so as to encompass a population that was more than 73 percent black in the 1980 census.

The Third District reaches around the city from Pikesville on the northwest to Columbia on the Southwest. Since the loop was not closed, some have described it as the "toilet seat district."

The Third owes its shape to the requirements of drawing the Seventh and to various decisions about how voters should be allocated between the Second and the Third. Democrats drew these lines for the most part -- and some but not all of the Democratic incumbents were protected by the decision-makers. Reliable segments of Democrats in Essex, Dundalk and Pikesville were divvied up between Democrats.

A partial result of that line drawing was the defeat of former

Democratic Rep. Clarence D. Long whose district lost some of its heavily-Democratic precincts to the Third. Democrats, of course, thought they had drawn districts that would remain safe if not quite prohibitively strong for their incumbents.

In 1986, Robert R. Neall might well have beaten Rep. Tom McMillen, D-Md-4th, but for Mr. McMillen's strong support among blacks in Prince George's. Mr. McMillen could be left more vulnerable if the new Maryland map puts him in a more conservative constituency -- more suburban, more Republican, less black and less Democratic.

Mr. McMillen could find himself in a brand new district -- the First -- along with first term Republican Wayne T. Gilchrest. Though freshmen often lose out in redistricting, Mr. McMillen could be grievously disadvantaged by such a turn because he would have an almost entirely new constituency. Some have wondered if Mr. McMillen has not become more conservative in his voting -- supporting the Persian Gulf war, for example -- in anticipation of his new, more conservative, constituency.

In the past, district lines have been drawn in some states to squeeze black voters into narrow zones or to "crack" black communities and assign the pieces to different districts. This approach can be seen now -- roughly -- in and around the heavily black precincts of Prince George's County where the black vote was split into slices of the Fifth and Fourth Districts. "Cracking" of this kind has been referred to as the pizza approach, since it results in districts with shapes reminiscent of pizza slices.

With a population that is more than 50 percent black, Prince George's represents an ideal opportunity to create a black "influence district." By aggregating areas that are increasingly black, map drawers can add sufficiently to the black nucleus of Prince George's to create a congressional district where the election of an African American congressman will be all but assured.

All over the country, in line-drawing contexts which are far less inviting than the one in Prince George's, Republicans are backing the demands of blacks by offering to finance legal challenges. In some cases -- as in Maryland, perhaps -- the mere threat is sufficient to convince Democrats that their best interests will be served by accommodating the black pressure.

Republican strategists have suggested that the number of blacks in Congress could double, pushing the number from 34 to 68. Others say the gains will be appreciable but more modest.

A potential beneficiary of the new line-drawing in Maryland is state Senator Albert R. Wynn, D-Prince George's, who says he will almost certainly run for the new black congressional seat. As a black state senator with campaign money in the bank, strong Democratic organizational support and a track record, he would be regarded as a strong candidate in a black district.

"This is something that could and ought to be done," he says of the new district. "It should be done in view of the Voting Act's requirements and the loyalty of the black community to the Democratic Party." He said he has every assurance from Democratic leaders that they will support such a district.

Mr. Wynn acknowledges a "commonalty of interest with Republicans." But he said he does not expect Democrats to be hurt in the more suburban areas surrounding Prince George's. He does not expect a formal alliance with the GOP -- and one may not be needed since the threat of a lawsuit is so clear.

Mr. Wynn thinks Democrats can have it both ways at least in the short run.

"We're looking to design something that accomplishes both of our objectives: creation of a black district and keeping the members we have," he says.

He said he is aware of the concern that Mr. McMillen and other Democrats might be vulnerable without rock-ribbed Democratic supporters in Prince George's.

But he said, trusting to the line-drawing power of the Democrats, "The party will work it out."

Mr. Wynn said he is not concerned that black voters are about to be "stacked" into a single district where they can elect only one black congressman -- and where they will be unable to help white Democrats who have voted for black interests. Mr. Wynn and other black public officials say it is unrealistic to expect black voters to forgo increases in their representation in Congress to help the Democratic party, however sympathetic it has been to them.

While Republicans could be helped by the doughnut strategy, not all of them are happy about what some of them call "Faustian" deal-making with blacks. Opponents of the national GOP strategy say it moves Republicans dangerously close to endorsement of quotas.

And even if Democrats head off a civil rights redistricting challenge in states such as Maryland, they could be challenged by the Republicans who argue the lines have been drawn to hurt them.

Maryland Republican Party chairman Joyce L. Terhes and other party leaders announced several months ago they would raise several hundred thousand dollars to prepare for a court battle.


Fraser Smith covers Maryland politics for The Sun.

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