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The Power Struggle Behind Redistricting


Far more than the shape of congressional boundaries is at stake in the Annapolis brouhaha over redistricting. It's a fight over power and who really calls the shots in the three-ring circus known as the State House.

Three characters are at the heart of this drama: the governor, the speaker of the House and the Senate president. Friction among the three has always been present. It is inherent in Maryland's governmental framework.

But there's a difference. This time, the battle is between House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. Gov. William Donald Schaefer is absent from the fray.

Ordinarily, it is the governor who takes the lead in settling disputes over matters such as redistricting. That hasn't been true in Annapolis this year. Mr. Schaefer has been almost a

non-player in the contest. Mr. Miller and Mr. Mitchell have been vying for top-dog designation.

The maneuvering between the two men has been intricate and intense. They insisted on being named to a special redistricting panel so they could dictate the outcome. Mr. Miller foisted one especially ham-handed plan on the panel and then, by force of personality, got the panel to endorse it.

Not to be outdone, Mr. Mitchell waited till Mr. Miller was on a trip to Ireland, then rallied support behind a different proposal and got the panel to reverse itself. A compromise plan, informally discussed by the two men before the Miller trip, was quickly shelved.

Why all this one-upsmanship over something as mundane as congressional redistricting? Because it sets the tone for crucial DTC battles that lie ahead in the State House.

Foremost on the minds of state lawmakers is the upcoming tug of war over legislative redistricting. State senators and delegates care far more about the contours of their own district boundaries than about congressional borders. It is a matter of survival for them. An alarming number of state legislators are turning these part-time posts into virtual full-time professions. Job security, for them, is paramount.

But the dynamics of re-mapping 47 legislative districts are vastly different from the congressional exercise. For one thing, under the state constitution the governor plays a pivotal role: He draws the initial maps, and unless both chambers agree on an alternate plan, the governor's maps become law.

Could that be why Mr. Mitchell re-established his badly frayed links to the governor, winning Mr. Schaefer's support for his own congressional redistricting plan?

Is that why Mr. Miller also set aside his own bitter disputes with the governor to talk redistricting with Mr. Schaefer over breakfast last week?

Neither man can afford to alienate Mr. Schaefer any longer. They need the governor on their side.

What happens, for instance, if Mr. Schaefer forms a working relationship with Mr. Mitchell on legislative redistricting, leaving Mr. Miller and his senators standing by helplessly as the new boundaries are drawn to suit the political desires of Mr. Mitchell's ambitious delegates?

The senators could not stop such a plan, since Mr. Mitchell could block any alternative map offered by Mr. Miller. Careers would be jeopardized, with delegates in strong position to challenge incumbent senators within the new districts they helped craft.

Little wonder, then, that Mr. Miller and Mr. Mitchell see the congressional redistricting struggle as a test of wills that could put one of them in an enviable position to deal effectively with the governor in drawing legislative boundaries.

At this stage, Speaker Mitchell has one advantage. He and Mr. Schaefer have resurrected their close, business-like rapport of two years ago. The same cannot be said of the still-tepid Miller-Schaefer dealings. But the speaker may have damaged his cause by recessing the House in a huff last week rather than accept a new compromise pushed by Mr. Miller that is gaining broad support in Annapolis circles.

From the governor's perspective, setting aside his deep distrust of legislators makes sense. His main concern at the moment is not redistricting but coping with the state's massive, $1 billion-plus deficit.

Closing this fiscal gap will be wrenching. The first distasteful steps should come Tuesday, when Mr. Schaefer unveils plans to erase the current year's half-billion-dollar gap. But without cooperation from Messrs. Miller and Mitchell, the task could turn truly gruesome.

If lawmakers continue to oppose higher taxes, gargantuan cuts in government are unavoidable. Reducing the scope of state departments by $1 billion or $1.5 billion would mean shutting agencies, crippling services and firing 10,000 or more workers. It would be a nightmare.

To avoid that calamity, the governor needs help from the legislature. He's got to have Assembly support to cover at least a portion of the deficit through tax increases. Yet he also requires legislative assent to cut deeply into local aid for schools and approval of large-scale layoffs and other reductions that require changes in state law.

That's why Mr. Schaefer was willing to sit down with Clay Mitchell and Mike Miller and talk about congressional redistricting. But the two legislators are discovering their dependence on the governor, too. The jockeying for strategic position in the State House has just begun.

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