Political necessities render redistricting 'a mess'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- There's an old saying that those who like sausage and laws shouldn't watch either being made.

Add congressional redistricting to that list. Several Maryland congressmen and some members of the Governor's Redistricting Advisory Committee have differing -- and strong -- views over how the lines are to be drawn.

Some are saying Representative Tom McMillen, D-Md.-4th, should be cast into a district that would combine Anne Arundel County with the Eastern Shore, now represented by freshman Republican Wayne T. Gilchrest.

Others are saying Representative Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md.-2nd, should have her largely Baltimore County district coupled with Mr. Gilchrest's.

While the governor's committee is wrapping up its public hearings -- "Democracy in action," gushed its chairman -- this fevered, behind-the-scenes jockeying for political advantage with computers and maps has led one state lawmaker to describe the process with a less noble term: "a mess."

Lawmakers and other politicos have turned into frantic sausage-makers, tossing favorite regions and precincts spiced with self-preservation into political casings that hold everything but consensus.

"I think everything's still up in the air," said one exasperated Democratic state legislator involved in the once-a-decade process.

On Thursday, the committee will convene in Annapolis for its final hearing on congressional reapportionment. Unable to rally behind one plan, the state's congressional delegation appears likely to offer several alternatives to the committee.

Next month, the five-member panel will unveil its proposal -- or proposals -- leaving the state legislature to decide this fall which district lines will be used in the primary next March and survive for a decade.

The sticking point in the whole process is which two congressmen will be thrown into one district to make possible what many say are twin legal and political necessities:

* A majority-black district in the Washington suburbs.

* A "safe seat" for Representative Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md.-5th.

Prince George's County, now represented by Mr. Hoyer and partly by Mr. McMillen, would be set aside as part -- or all -- of a new majority black district. The sharp rise in the county's black population during the past decade -- from 37.2 percent in 1980 to 51 percent in 1990 -- all but requires a minority district under the federal Voting Rights Act, say Democratic and Republican leaders.

Mr. Hoyer, who would be displaced by such a plan, is the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House and a skilled Appropriations Committee member. Translation: the state's meal ticket.

The Prince George's Democrat hopes to carve out for himself a seat that will include portions of Prince George's, a slice of Montgomery County and Southern Maryland's Calvert, Charles and St. Mary's counties, which are represented by Mr. Gilchrest.

Mr. Hoyer already has bought a summer place in St. Mary's and has been making the political rounds. During the governor's committee hearing in Southern Maryland last week, Mr. Hoyer's campaign faxed "talking points" to supporters, noting that Prince George's and the three southern counties shared a congressional district "for about 68 of the last 100 years."

Since Maryland will retain eight congressional seats, taking two seats away for a majority black district and a safe seat for Mr. Hoyer will leave seven lawmakers and six districts.

Mr. Hoyer and Representative Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md.-3rd, have been trying to get Mr. McMillen to fall on his sword for the good of the party by doubling up with Mr. Gilchrest.

Some Democratic leaders have backed away from the idea of placing Mr. Gilchrest with fellow Republican Mrs. Bentley. They are sensitive to her threats to run against Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski next year, to her close ties to Gov. William Donald Schaefer and other state Democrats and to her work on issues of importance to Maryland, such as trade and shipping.

Mrs. Bentley has publicly supported a state GOP plan that would create a minority district but not a haven for Mr. Hoyer. But lately she has been floating that same McMillen-Gilchrest scenario, fearing that Democrats would throw her into a district with Mr. Gilchrest, according to sources involved in the process.

"We're working on something, and that's all I'm going to tell you," the Lutherville Republican said.

Mr. Gilchrest, meanwhile, said he still supports the GOP plan and declined comment on Mrs. Bentley's purported scenario. "I'm going to run for Congress regardless of what the district looks like," he said.

Mr. Cardin, for his part, denied that he was pushing a plan that would advocate a McMillen-Gilchrest match. "I'm trying to develop a consensus," he said. "Whether that will be possible or not, I don't know."

Steny and Ben have mentioned [sharing a district with Mr. Gilchrest] to me," Mr. McMillen said. "The problem with that is you end up imperiling Democrats, and you don't have to do that."

His alternative? "Bentley and Gilchrest are the contiguous Republicans. It makes sense to put them in the same district," Mr. McMillen said. With his party dominating the governor's office and the legislature, said Mr. McMillen, "ultimately that will prevail."

The Crofton Democrat said his Democratic colleagues can come up with a plan "if everybody gives" a portion of favored turf. The congressman, who has drafted numerous proposals, declined to say what he wants, although some suggest he would like to move farther into Howard County and perhaps Montgomery County.

Mr. McMillen is finding support from Anne Arundel County legislators -- particularly Sen. Michael J. Wagner -- who fear that placing their top local Democrat with a Republican will further the GOP surge in Anne Arundel that has claimed the county executive's office.

Also, state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, a member of the governor's redistricting committee, is not keen on the idea of selling Mr. McMillen down the river -- or, better yet, across the bay -- preferring to send off Mrs. Bentley.

Mr. Miller declined to comment, but Mr. McMillen acknowledged that the Senate president "feels that's the way you protect a strong Democratic Party in your state."

Meanwhile, House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, another member of the redistricting committee, does not want to see Cecil County split from the Eastern Shore, a move necessary to achieve a McMillen-Gilchrest matchup. Preserving the Shore is seen as his one iron rule, said several Democrats in Washington and Annapolis.

The House speaker also is said to be opposed to placing Southern Maryland into another district, which could force Mr. Hoyer's proposed new district deeper into Montgomery County. Mr. Mitchell also has declined to comment about redistricting until the committee finishes its process.

During the public hearings there was wide public sentiment on both the Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland against a divorce for political expediency. Many cited the common interests of the two largely rural areas.

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