Redistricting map slices Balto. Co. 'like piece of pie'


In far less time than it takes to soft boil an egg, or to sing whatever song is playing on the car radio, a person can drive a 3/8-mile stretch of York Road in Cockeysville and cross three invisible borders, traversing territory that might soon be assigned to three different members of the House of Representatives.

Nothing on the road marks the changes, which for now exist only on a proposed map to redraw Maryland's congressional districts. The barbecue place just above Beaver Run Lane is there, a stone's throw from the strip of antiques shops above Cockeysville Road.

But if the legislature approves the new map, as it is likely to do, these businesses, now in the same district, will suddenly be connected to Cumberland and Ocean City, respectively, for at least the next decade.

"Gee, that's dumb," said Jean Donnell, a speech teacher at Essex Community College whose Warren Road townhouse, because it's on the north side of the street, would fall into the Eastern Shore district.

"Is it in our best interest to have a representative who lives two hours away? That's like making President Bush the president of Russia. And what's the purpose? It's political, isn't it."

And how.

Redistricting is among the most partisan-driven exercises in the United States. With each 10-year census, states must reorganize their district maps to properly reflect population shifts.

This mathematical task is coupled with a tantalizing opportunity for the political party controlling a state to create territories custom-made to elect more of its own.

And this year - an election year when Republicans control the House of Representatives by just six seats - many states have come under intense pressure from the national parties, which form special consulting arms to provide voter performance data to local politicians.

"It's arcane. It's classic inside politics," said Tim Storey, a redistricting analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"The public doesn't take much of an interest in it," he said. "And it's very difficult to get them interested because they generally don't see the connection between the makeup of their district and the policy that comes out of the House of Representatives."

The remoteness of the process allows some very strange things to happen. In one Western state, a lawmaker wanted his mother to stay in his district, Storey said. No matter that his mother was dead - the map's drafters simply included her cemetery in his district.

In Maryland, the governor's goal was to protect incumbents and gain one or two more Democratic representatives by ousting Republicans Constance A. Morella and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. And rather than shift a district to the more populous Washington suburbs, the drafting committee chose to retain three seats in the Baltimore area.

The strategy resulted in many squiggly lines across Baltimore County, which the new map splits five ways, up from three.

Although it might look as if the map's drafters had a bit too much to drink when they set their pens to the county, David Lublin, a government professor at American University, points out that neatly shaped districts don't always equal fair districts.

And northern Baltimore County is largely Republican, so linking it with other GOP districts is defensible. "In terms of the bizarreness of the groupings of people, these lines are not at all extreme," he said.

Such messiness appears to be spread evenly across the country, with varying degrees of acceptance. Of the nearly 35 states that have completed their legislative and congressional redistricting, 23 have been sued. Even in the six states where an independent commission draws the maps, court complaints are common.

"No matter how you draw the lines, whether it's a rhesus monkey in the lab or some supercomputer, the outcome is so political," Storey said. "I don't think you can take the politics out of redistricting."

Maryland's committee (one Republican and four Democrats, including the Senate president and the House speaker) made no secret of its motives.

To make re-election difficult for Baltimore County's Ehrlich, and to preserve a comfortable 7th District for Democrat Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore, the drafters made creative use of two other districts: Republican Wayne T. Gilchrest's 1st District on the Eastern Shore and Republican Roscoe G. Bartlett's 6th District in Western Maryland.

The committee carved out a new, Y-shaped 2nd District designed to appeal to Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who might run for the seat Ehrlich now holds.

Adding to Ehrlich's discomfort, Gilchrest's district crosses the Chesapeake and stretches through Baltimore County, where it hooks just enough to take in Ehrlich's house.

As a result, to avoid challenging a fellow Republican, Ehrlich will be forced to campaign in the new 2nd District - even though he won't live there - if he runs for re-election.

Meanwhile, because Baltimore lost so much population, Cummings' district grabs voters elsewhere, mostly from Howard County. To account for the loss of Howard voters from Bartlett's district, the new map gives him a swath of northern Baltimore County.

To some people living along these proposed borders, the political machinations are beside the point, and even insulting.

Under the new map, Keith Nusinov's Cockeysville jewelry store will remain in the 2nd. His nearby house, though, would be in Gilchrest's district. And he's soon moving to Parkton, putting him with Bartlett.

As a conservative Republican, Nusinov's less worried about his views being well represented than he is about the county's future. "I think the area's too important to start cutting it up like a piece of pie," he said.

Ehrlich, who has represented most of Baltimore County since 1995, has an office near Nusinov's store and is a customer. "Gilchrest, well, I don't think he's going to have a feel for the area," Nusinov said.

Just up York Road, Jim Wilkerson, a retired printing supplier, is also unhappy. His Ashland development will be in Bartlett's district. "I've known Ehrlich all my life," Wilkerson said. "He's a fine, upstanding young man."

What does he know of Bartlett? "Nothing right now, at all."

Besides, Wilkerson doesn't relish feeling like a pawn. "I don't think we have a voice in this. I think [Gov. Parris N. Glendening] and his boys are going to do it the way they want to do it," he said.

Neither Wilkerson nor Nusinov can recall contacting Ehrlich for anything. Still, they like knowing he's around, like a handy neighbor.

But to many people, this lack of connection has left them cold to redistricting.

"I had no idea," said Pamela Diaconis, a nurse who lives in Mays Chapel, an area of exploding residential growth that would be added to Gilchrest's district. "What's the difference?"

Antiques dealer Carol Fort isn't sure of the difference, either. Her house and business would shift from the 2nd to the 1st. All she knows of Gilchrest is that he has an Eastern Shore address.

"I guess maybe it's that we don't know the consequences, so obviously we don't feel a threat," she said.

The map's creators don't always know the consequences, either. In effect, they're making decade-long policy decisions based on individuals subject to whim and fate.

During the last round of redistricting in 1992, then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer provided a favorable district for his friend, Republican Rep. Helen Delich Bentley. That and other factors pushed Democratic Rep. Tom McMillen into a race against Gilchrest, who narrowly won.

Soon after, Bentley abandoned her congressional seat to run for governor, unsuccessfully.

At the time, McMillen blamed Schaefer's map in part for his defeat and warned of further damage to the party.

But last week, McMillen said he approved of Glendening's redistricting map, despite its deeply partisan foundations. "It's political," he said. "It's meant to be messy."

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