Redistricting threatens rural coalition


HANCOCK -- When state Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington, welcomed the governor's Redistricting Advisory Committee to Hancock last week, he called the area "the heart of Western Maryland."

At hearings here and in Frederick last week, Mr. Munson and others told the committee that the five-county Western Maryland region -- the political body that houses that heart -- should be kept intact.

The committee is seeking comments from citizens throughout the state about proposals to realign legislative and congressional districts. The panel must come up with boundaries for districts statewide based on 1990 Census figures, with a goal of equal numbers of voters in each district to ensure equal representation.

Hearings in Hancock and Frederick drew little interest in the 6th Congressional District, which includes all of Western Maryland.

Few changes are being considered for that district, which is represented by U.S. Representative Beverly Byron.

But the committee is considering a significant change in the Western Maryland legislative districts. Carroll, Frederick, Washington, Allegany and Garrett counties are all part of the Western Maryland delegation to the General Assembly and operate as a bloc.

The committee is considering whether to include all of Carroll County with the other four counties or to place it with the Baltimore metropolitan region and place Frederick and Washington counties with the Washington metropolitan region when the political boundaries are redrawn in 1992.

Western Maryland legislators hope to convince the committee not to break up the bloc that feels more at ease with rural partners than with metropolitan communities.

"We feel that we have a lot more in common as a region" than with the Baltimore or Washington metropolitan areas, said state Sen. John W. Derr, R-Frederick.

His colleague, state Sen. Charles H. Smelser, D-Carroll, also is asking the committee "to support the protection of the integrity of the five-county region."

The rural western counties -- even fast-growing Carroll and Frederick counties -- still consider themselves conservative communities, not politically comfortable with metropolitan and suburban agendas.

Mr. Munson said the five counties "have a lot more in common" than they would with counties in the Baltimore and Washington metropolitan region. "Philosophically and politically, we are pretty much the same," he said.

The committee has set as a goal that the 47 legislative districts will be "substantially equal in population," with an ideal target of about 101,733 residents per district, represented by one senator and three delegates. The target for congressional districts is 597,683 residents.

A plan for congressional redistricting is due by the end of the summer, with a special General Assembly session scheduled for Sept. 24 to address those recommendations.

Legislative proposals will be announced in November, with adoption by state legislators scheduled for February.

Committee Chairman Benjamin L. Brown said the committee will review the testimony and weigh it against its legal obligations for redistricting when making its recommendations.

The testimony state officials heard last week in Western Maryland asked that the region not be broken up and aligned with metropolitan areas.

"The testimony is very significant," Mr. Brown said. "When you have a region with similar concerns and that has worked together for a long period of time, that history and relationship requires serious consideration. The people in Western Maryland are as solidly together as those in Southern Maryland and on the Eastern Shore."

The advisory committee, which also includes House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, will hold public hearings in Hyattsville, Hughesville and Baltimore before presenting its congressional redistricting plans for public review July 25 at a hearing in Annapolis.

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