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Baltimore County needs diverse leadership, but redistricting is an uncertain tool for achieving it | COMMENTARY

State Sen. Dolores Kelley was one of many people that spoke at a press conference to call on Baltimore County Council to start over with the proposed county redistricting plan to create districts where minority candidates would have a better chance of being elected. Oct. 12, 2021. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun).
State Sen. Dolores Kelley was one of many people that spoke at a press conference to call on Baltimore County Council to start over with the proposed county redistricting plan to create districts where minority candidates would have a better chance of being elected. Oct. 12, 2021. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun). (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

On paper, the case for greater racial diversity on the Baltimore County Council is ironclad. Since 2000, the percentage of county residents who are African American has grown from 20% to 30.3% today. Yet there is currently just one member of the seven-member council, Julian Jones, who is Black, and he is only the second African American person to achieve that office (Kenneth Oliver having been the first to break that barrier in 2002). That is not exactly a record for equity to brag about. It was made possible by the council’s decision two decades ago to create a majority-minority 4th district that Mr. Jones now represents. Will doubling African American representation on the council require at least doubling the number of majority-minority districts?

The answer, according to civil rights leaders including members of the Baltimore County NAACP, is yes. And in a news conference held Tuesday, they and state Sens. Delores Kelley and Charles Sydnor, argued that failing to do so would represent a violation of the federal Voting Rights Act. After all, no majority-white district in Baltimore County has ever elected an African American individual to the council. And by sheer numbers, there ought to be at least three non-white members instead of merely one. This pattern of racially polarized voting, as well as the success of the 4th district in countering that, surely reinforces their case. And the ACLU even offered a map that would create two majority Black districts, with a third that might “swing” with a 50-50 split of white and non-white voters (Black, Latino and Asian).

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Yet there are several challenges here. First, it is possible to win this battle but lose the war — at least if the goal of diversity is to create a council more sympathetic to the needs of people of color. That’s because Democrats hold a slim 4-3 majority on the council today. Redistricting that ignores how redrawn districts could tip that balance might backfire. After all, increasing Black representation in some areas ultimately dilutes Democrats’ clout in others. Republican candidates in those majority-white districts could benefit. If Councilman Jones is frustrated by the council’s majority now, he should try it when Republican members like the 7th district’s Todd Crandell, who last year opposed police reform (including a ban on chokeholds), hold power.

Second is the matter of gerrymandering. Just one glance at the ACLU’s proposal versus the one recently offered by the county’s redistricting commission suggests it’s the former that has the most squiggles and odd joining together of communities with otherwise little in common. This is necessitated because minority voters aren’t all clustered in a few places. As a result, building more majority-minority districts in some locations results in creating an even more rambling third district that runs from the Pennsylvania state line nearly to the outreaches of Sykesville to the west and Jarrettsville/Fallston to the east. And that’s just one example. So much for county law that requires districts to be compact and contiguous.

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As for the threat of a voting rights lawsuit, we suspect the current council, which will be taking up redistricting shortly, is not exactly quaking in their boots — at least not if they’ve been paying attention to the U.S. Supreme Court. The landmark civil rights law is a shadow of its former self thanks to some adverse court rulings, including an Arizona case just a few months ago where the conservative majority essentially said it didn’t care if a state ban on third party collections of absentee ballots disproportionately hurt minorities.

None of this is to suggest that increasing minority representation on the Baltimore County Council is not the right thing to do, it is. And redistricting should help. But the devil is in the details. So far, County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. has remained on the sidelines of this debate, suggesting only through his spokesman that he shares the concerns of those who aren’t happy with the redistricting commission’s current proposal. He’s going to have to do better than that in the days ahead. Surely, what’s needed here is an explanation to county residents why greater minority representation is vital.

Such a conversation might start with a reminder that the woefully dysfunctional Baltimore County Board of Education would surely benefit. Currently just two of 11 adult members are African American, including chair Makeda Scott. The 12th school board member, Christian Thomas, a senior at Eastern Technical High School, identifies as multiracial. As elected members run by council districts, redrawing the lines could shake things up for the better. One can only hope. Few issues represent the civil rights struggle in Baltimore County better than public education, where about 40% of students but only 12% of teachers are African American.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.

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