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Van Hollen, Edwards react to Hogan's redistricting plan

Reps. Chris Van Hollen and Donna F. Edwards.
Reps. Chris Van Hollen and Donna F. Edwards. (Baltimore Sun)

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat running for Senate in Maryland, offered a tepid response Friday to Gov. Larry Hogan's proposal to change the way the state's congressional districts are drawn, suggesting that the GOP-led Congress should take up national redistricting reform.

"I trust you will agree that it makes more sense to have one set of nonpartisan rules for the entire country rather than a state-by-state approach that can be used to disadvantage one party over the other at the national level," Van Hollen wrote to Hogan, who on Thursday created a commission to study the redistricting process in Maryland.

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The Montgomery County Democrat said he is "open to reviewing" Hogan's proposal, but indicated in a separate letter to House Speaker John Boehner that he supports a national, rather than state-by-state, approach.

Van Hollen's letters on the issue came shortly after his opponent in the Senate race, Rep. Donna F. Edwards of Prince George's County, seemed to offer a subtly more supportive statement — though she also did not endorse Hogan's efforts. Edwards said she will review the proposal to determine whether it would truly be independent of partisan politics.

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"I have long supported redistricting reforms to end the damage partisan gerrymandering does to our democracy," Edwards said. "As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act this week, we should denounce a process that far too often places political interests over ensuring that all Americans have fair representation."

Maryland has some of the most awkwardly shaped congressional districts in the country. State Democrats have been criticized for eking a seventh House seat for their party out of those congressional districts in 2011. Though the party enjoys a 2-to-1 advantage in voter registration, it has a 7-to-1 advantage in the delegation.

The two Senate candidates were the first members of the state's congressional delegation to offer any reaction to Hogan's proposal, which involves little more than a study commission for now. Their stances were far more gingerly than the position taken by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who quickly wrote off the idea.

Following through on a campaign promise, Hogan tasked the commission with making recommendations by November on how to improve the process. Those recommendations will include an amendment to the state constitution to be considered next year.

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Any major overhaul of the redistricting process in the state is likely to face opposition from the Democratic-controlled General Assembly, and that is why most of the state's congressional delegation — the people most affected, other than voters — have likely held their tongues.

Democrats in Annapolis have strenuously opposed Hogan's idea, noting that Republican-controlled legislatures in other states have drawn the lines to their advantage as well. It wouldn't be fair, they say, to change the system in Maryland without a commitment that politics be removed from the map making process in GOP dominated states.

Van Hollen appeared to pick up on that theme Friday, pointing to one of several bills in Congress that would require states to conduct congressional redistricting through independent commissions. Both Van Hollen and Edwards are original co-sponsors of that bill, but the effort also isn't expected to go anywhere in this Congress.

Supporters of the current maps note they were approved by state voters in a referendum the following year. Others note that the state's congressional districts — including the often cited meandering 3rd District — weren't exactly square shaped before 2011.

The reactions from Van Hollen and Edwards are particularly interesting because of how differently the two Democrats approached the 2011 redistricting. In a way, their dissimilar styles during that year's special legislative session presaged themes of their Senate campaigns.

Edwards, who casts herself as independent of the party structure, was vocally opposed to the plan — largely because her 4th District lost territory in Montgomery County. She proposed her own map, testified against the proposal submitted by Gov. Martin O'Malley and tried to rally the Legislative Black Caucus to oppose it.

Van Hollen, who has touted his "effectiveness" and ability to build coalitions, met privately with O'Malley in Annapolis and rarely discussed his thoughts on the early drafts of the map. Van Hollen, who represents the 8th District, also lost portions of his base in Montgomery County and picked up GOP territory in Carroll County.

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