Maryland’s 1st Congressional District has long been peculiarly shaped and not just because it follows the contours of the glacially carved Chesapeake Bay, with all its winding tributaries. When I lived in the district 40 years ago, in a small town nestled in the fertile farmland of Caroline County, it was regarded as the most sprawling district east of the Mississippi, spreading all the way across the Eastern Shore and Southern Maryland and even north, to the steps of Baltimore.
Two factors loomed large in its creation. First, its rural nature required it to be big geographically, and second, the usual political gerrymandering by the Democratically controlled state legislature required it to be oddly shaped. By this, I mean the politically conservative region tended to get redistricting “leftovers,” as Democrats carved up adjoining congressional districts like a Christmas goose. And so, the tradition continued every 10 years, as the latest U.S. Census figures (and shifting political priorities) required new lines to be drawn.
This week, Maryland legislators are back in Annapolis with carving knives in hand. It’s not going to be pretty. Oh, lawmakers will talk a lot about fairness and natural geographic boundaries or shared interests of various communities, but what they’ll really have on their minds is something along the lines of this: What do you think we can get away with?
And the answer is: Quite a lot.
Gerrymandering congressional districts is the ultimate example of legislative sausage-making. It’s reliable, it’s commonplace, but it’s not especially pretty to witness up close. And you can bet that whatever the Maryland General Assembly approves (and Republican Gov. Larry Hogan vetoes, lawmakers override, and the governor takes to court) is bound to eventually stick. The Supreme Court has spoken on this kind of gerrymandering before, concluding just two years ago that partisan redistricting (at least the kind that does not also involve racial discrimination) isn’t reviewable by the federal courts.
Americans should not be shocked to see politicians act in self-interest. This is how we set up the system. States are welcome to voluntarily change the game. At least eight states have by creating independent commissions to draw the lines. But in the rest, it’s generally up to the state legislature.
And here’s the essential problem: Maryland could switch to an independent commission, too, and draw the lines in a manner that kept more subdivisions intact and didn’t create any that looked like “a broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate across the center of the state” as a federal judge once described Maryland’s 3rd. But then Republican-controlled states that do not have such inclinations would then pad GOP majorities in the U.S. House of Representatives. It’s like expecting Democrats to lay down their arms without any guarantee from the opposing side.
That’s why the most painful hypocrisy Marylanders will likely hear this week — at least those bothering to observe the goings on in the State House — will be from the GOP camp, which backed Governor Hogan’s effort to appoint his own commission to devise maps. Monday on Twitter, Mr. Hogan chastised Democrats for daring to gerrymander when they could be talking about gun violence in Baltimore or something. “They care more about protecting career politicians than stopping violent gun crimes. It is shameful and inexcusable,” the governor opined.
Now, if Mr. Hogan wants to give that same lecture in Texas or Florida or Ohio or those other states where gerrymandering is boosting GOP prospects, then I might be impressed. But when blatant self-interest clashes with self-interest disguised as virtue, I generally have to deal with an involuntary gag reflex. That’s not to suggest I’m any fan of gerrymandering. I’m not. I’m also not a fan of gun violence. But I am a fan of sincerity. And faux integrity isn’t limited to the Republicans, by the way. In the 1st district Democratic primary, frontrunner former Del. Heather Mizeur has been criticized this week by her opponents for — get this — supporting Democratic redistricting. Shoot, even former Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, who represented the 1st as a Republican from 1990 to 2008, favors the Democrats’ revised map that slides Anne Arundel County into the 1st as it might return Maryland’s only GOP congressman, the regrettable Rep. Andy Harris, to his home in Cockeysville instead of remaining in Washington, D.C., doing Donald Trump’s bidding.
Hopefully, Marylanders are capable of seeing the big picture and recognize that electing a member of Congress is not like electing a mayor, a county commissioner or some other local office. They aren’t voting on laws that affect just one state, let alone just one small portion of one state, they are making decisions that have national and sometimes international consequences. And as for the 1st, no matter the exact district lines, I feel confident that once the dust settles whomever is elected next year will be politically right of center. Until they start grafting big chunks of liberal enclaves like Baltimore, or perhaps Prince George’s County, onto the Eastern Shore, it will remain the region of the state most firmly rooted in the past.