Democrats add woman to redistricting panel


Howard County Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung's demeanor doesn't normally evoke the lyrics of Helen Reddy's feminist anthem, "I Am Woman" (hear me roar), but the mild-mannered Democrat has her moments.

Lorsung wanted a female Democrat appointed to the county's first Redistricting Commission, but her party wasn't listening.

Now they are.

Furious at what she felt was a glaring omission, Lorsung made her feelings clear, but got the brushoff from other Democrats. When it came time to vote, however, her party mates discovered they needed her to break a deadlock with the council's Republicans.

The council bill containing the names of four male Democrats recommended for the commission died in a 2-2 partisan council vote March 5, while Lorsung was traveling abroad. A new bill - including a female Democrat's name - is set for introduction April 5.

Lorsung said it's just not right to leave women out of so important a political process.

"Frankly, I thought we had gotten way beyond that. We should be at a point where everything is everybody's issue. One [woman] out of seven was just not acceptable," she said. "It seems so obvious to me, but I guess not everyone sees things quite the same."

Priscilla Hart, a Lorsung political ally and past president of the county and state chapters of the League of Women Voters, is among the Democrats nominated in the new commission bill.

The Republicans also nominated a female member - B. Diane Wilson, a 26-year Columbia resident and aide to former councilman Dennis R. Schrader.

At stake are the boundaries of County Council districts for the next three elections, starting next year, based on the 2000 Census.

The Democrats hope to make changes that will help, or at least not hurt, their chances of keeping their 3-2 majority on the council.

The Republicans hope to minimize or blunt their efforts and recapture control of the five-member body.

The two council Republicans, Allan H. Kittleman and Christopher J. Merdon, said they wanted a nonpartisan chair for the commission instead of the Democrats' choice - David Marker.

Democrat C. Vernon Gray accused them of "blatant partisan game-playing," noting that if the GOP wanted a nonpartisan commission, they could have used their control of the last council to do that when the law was passed in 1996.

Council Chairman Guy J. Guzzone, a Democrat, said the Republicans "didn't get rid of David Marker. He's still the chair." But the rancor may make a coperative process more difficult.

"They certainly created a bit of anger within the Democratic Party," Guzzone said.

The GOP members claimed innocence again last week, asserting that they, too, feel that women should be represented among the Democrats.

"We agree with Mary on that. Ms. Hart wouldn't be there without Chris and I," Kittleman said.

"I think that's exactly what we wanted. I think it's great that we have someone from the league on the commission," Merdon said.

Each major party is allowed to name three members to the seven-member commission, and the council chooses the chairman. Since three of the five council members are Democrats, they control that choice, and the commission.

The group is to recommend new councilmanic district boundaries by October, though the council will have the final say. The districts have to be changed to reflect the 66,500 increase in the Howard County population since 1990.

The commission is being used for the first time this year, in an effort to avoid the kind of partisan acrimony that erupted during redistricting after the 1990 census. That fight lasted two years and ended up in court.

Hart said she believes the commission should have female representation "because the population of the county is over 50 percent women."

If blacks were excluded, she said, "there would have been complaints. Certainly the Democrats, when they send people to national conventions, they split it to make sure there are men and women. This isn't very different."

But Wendy Fiedler, county Democratic chairman, said, "It's not a real gender issue with us. We felt like everyone was going to be fully represented regardless of the gender makeup of the group. It didn't occur to us it would be an issue, frankly."

Frederic Cooper, a member of the Democratic State Central Committee, withdrew from the list of commission nominees to make room for Hart. The other nominees are Democrats Neil Quinter, J. T. Thonton and Marker, and Republicans Wilson, Michael J. Deets and Warren E. Miller.

Always eager to trade barbs with Republicans, Gray said, "I'm very happy that they're [Kittleman and Merdon] happy that we're putting a strong Democratic woman on the committee. It's clear that they tried to shamelessly take partisan credit for everything."

To which Kittleman responded:

"They [Democrats] have the votes. If they had had their house in order maybe they would have done it more properly."

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