Redistricting: Maryland's cure for the blue state blues

Times are tough right now for national Democrats.

The Republicans recaptured the U.S. House in 2010 after just four years of Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Next year, Democrats will have to defend their huge 2006 Senate class. And, with approval ratings south of the critical 50 percent threshold, President Barack Obama's re-election in 2012 is no sure bet.

As if the Democrats needed more reason to be glum, the 2010 election results gave the Republicans the upper hand in the decennial redistricting process in most states.

Against this rather dark backdrop for Democrats, Maryland is a sunny exception. Democrats control every statewide elected office, solid majorities in both chambers of the Maryland General Assembly, both U.S. Senate seats and six of the state's eight U.S. House seats — and now they're looking to make it seven.

Before we get to the new map, let's back up a bit and take a look at the existing one.

In 2001, then-Gov. Parris Glendening, then-House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. and (then and now) Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller created the eight districts currently in effect. At that time, and with the benefit of popular incumbent Republican moderates Bob Ehrlich and Connie Morella, the Republicans held a surprising four of the state's eight seats. In a decidedly "blue" state, Democrats were frustrated by the evenly split delegation.

The Glendening-Taylor-Miller map shifted surplus Democrats from the neighboring 3rd and 7th districts into the 2nd, which Mr. Ehrlich was vacating to run for governor. It moved key African-American precincts from the 4th District in Prince George's County into Ms. Morella's 8th District. In an otherwise strong 2002 Republican cycle following the Sept. 11 attacks, Maryland Democrats managed to gain two seats: Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger won Mr. Ehrlich's open seat, and state Sen. Chris Van Hollen unseated Ms. Morella.

Mission accomplished: The Democrats improved from a 4-4 split to a 6-2 advantage.

In the decade since, Maryland's statewide population grew 9 percent to nearly 5.8 million residents, and from an ideal House district size of about 662,000 people to 722,000. That growth was anything but uniform statewide, of course. Continued population shifts away from Baltimore City toward the Baltimore suburbs, Washington suburbs and especially toward the outlying portions of the state are changing the geographic power calculus.

The 7th District, based in West Baltimore and represented by Democrat Elijah Cummings, gained no net population. Meanwhile, the three districts that grew the most were, in order, Democrat Steny Hoyer's 5th District in Southern Maryland, followed by the Eastern Shore-based 1st District and Republican Roscoe Bartlett's Western Maryland 6th District that stretches eastward from Garrett County along much of the state's shared border with Pennsylvania.

The newly proposed map attempts to expand that Democratic delegation from six to seven seats. As the Sun's Annie Linskey reports, the map would gerrymander the 6th District, anchored in Western Maryland, by adding significant portions of Montgomery County in order to depose Mr. Bartlett.

The panel shelved a second, more aggressive plan that might have imperiled the seats of both Mr. Bartlett and fellow Republican Andy Harris of the 1st District. In fact, in order to put more Democratic precincts into the 6th District, the proposed map packs an inordinate share of Republicans into Mr. Harris' district. In effect, the 1st District was sacrificed in the hope of flipping the 6th District.

That news surely disappoints Frank Kratovil, the Democrat elected in 2008 who represented the 1st District for one term before Mr. Harris beat him in a 2010 rematch. On the other hand, the decision paves the way for Democratic state Sen. Rob Garagiola ofMontgomery County to run in the newly reconfigured 6th District.

As Democrats are doing here in Maryland, so too are Republicans gerrymandering the states they control. Presently, former House majority leader Tom DeLay is appealing his conviction earlier this year for laundering money as part of his scheme to gerrymander Texas' House map in the middle of last decade. These are the consequences of our polarized politics.

In a democracy, voters are supposed to pick the politicians who represent them. But gerrymandering too often inverts this relationship: Politicians pick their voters, typically with incumbent-protection and party-expansion objectives in mind. Is it any wonder that a Congress full of mostly safe incumbents representing contorted districts suffers from record-low approval ratings?

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is schaller67@gmail.com.

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