Congressional map draws tepid support, even opposition, from some Democrats

Gov. Martin O'Malley and the ruling Democrats in Annapolis worked hard to draw a new congressional map that could force a Western Maryland Republican from office. But the result is such a contorted tangle of districts that even some Democrats have declined to support it.

The Democratic Central Committees for Montgomery and Prince George's counties — the state's two largest — decided not to make a recommendation to voters about whether they should vote for the map, which is on the ballot in November. Several Democratic lawmakers are working against it. Others are taking a more nuanced approach, speaking about the map only when asked.

Even many of the state's Democratic members of Congress are saying little to nothing about the new map, with its meandering boundaries.

"A lot of Democrats are appalled by it," said Phil Andrews, a Montgomery County Council member who recently testified against the map at a meeting of county Democrats. Andrews has written opinion pieces published in The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post urging a "no" vote.

The lukewarm response from some Democratic strongholds is surprising, given that the map offers one of the few opportunities in the country to turn a congressional seat from red to blue. But it shows the tension that the redistricting process has created within the party.

A federal judge called the map a "blatant political gerrymander," but the court held that it is legal nonetheless. Republican activists then gathered about 59,000 signatures to force a referendum — shocking Annapolis insiders, who assumed the petition drive would fail. The GOP opponents said their most effective argument was merely showing potential signators a picture of the map.

Most of the state's Democratic leaders say they want the new map. "Maryland Democrats strongly support this map, and believe that voters will ultimately decide in favor of it on Election Day," Rep. Steny Hoyer of Southern Maryland, the House minority whip, said in a statement.

Such confidence is bolstered by the lack of an organized opposition campaign by state Republicans. No money has been raised for the GOP-led ballot committee trying to defeat the map, making it difficult to spread the message of opposition on an issue that many voters may find dull.

"We haven't asked for money," said Tony Campbell, chairman of the ballot committee called Repeal O'Malley's Map. "Maryland is not on anybody's political radar, so it's all a state grass-roots kind of stuff."

Plus, the ballot initiative — Question 5 — is overshadowed by more emotionally charged issues, including same-sex marriage and expanded gambling.

Should the map be rejected by voters, it would go back to the General Assembly to be redrawn. O'Malley has said that any changes would be "marginal."

"It is hard to get fired up about redistricting. It is a lot of numbers and lines," said Sen. Brian Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat who supports the map.

"I don't think there is great enthusiasm," Frosh conceded, but added, "I don't sense that it is in any trouble."

The U.S. Constitution requires that each state redraw congressional districts every 10 years to account for population changes found by the Census. Maryland's Democrat-controlled General Assembly met in special session last fall to draw new boundaries and put tens of thousands of Montgomery County Democrats into Western Maryland's 6th District, making the traditionally conservative seat a toss-up. The district has long been represented by Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett.

Negotiations over the map were touchy and frequently pitted lawmakers against each other as well as state leaders. Members of Congress lobbied behind the scenes to hold onto certain precincts — an effort that meant political cartographers stretched districts that were oddly shaped to begin with.

For example, 3rd District Rep. John Sarbanes continues to represent the city of Annapolis as well as portions of Baltimore County. The result is a district described by a judge as "reminiscent of a broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate across the center of the state."

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger held on to Randallstown, creating an awkward hook in his 2nd District.

More squiggles were needed to ensure that the three members of Congress who live about 10 miles from one another in Baltimore County stayed in their districts.

The resulting product involves boundaries so splayed that a report by the Philadelphia-based consulting firm Azavea concluded that three of Maryland's districts are among the most gerrymandered in the nation.

Maryland House of Delegates Speaker Michael E. Busch noted that the map was approved by the required "super-majorities" in both chambers in Annapolis. Members of the state's congressional delegation, he said, are out in communities introducing themselves to their new constituents. "In the final analysis they will be the best salesmen for the map and their district," Busch said.

If that's true, however, they are not being particularly vocal about it.

Speaking at a recent political event in Baltimore, Rep. Elijah Cummings of the 7th District fired up a crowd of Democratic volunteers by urging voters to support his fellow Democratic members of Congress at the polls. He didn't mention Question 5 — and, when asked if he talks about it on the campaign trail, he said: "Not very much."

"The legislature has spoken," Cummings said. "Now it is up to the voters. I think it is a good map."

Sarbanes said in a statement that a "key success" of the map is that two-thirds of Marylanders stay in their old districts. He declined to answer any questions about his level of support for the plan.

In a statement, Rep. Chris Van Hollen of the 8th District said simply: "I believe the voters should decide, and they will have the opportunity to do so on election day."

Ruppersberger declined to comment. Fourth District Rep. Donna Edwards, a vocal opponent of the map as it moved through the General Assembly, also did not comment.

The Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee — a group of volunteers who control local party activity — caused a stir in late August when a subcommittee voted 11-1 to recommend advising citizens to vote "No" on Question 5.

O'Malley and Hoyer urged them to reconsider. The governor wrote them, employing a partisan argument: "We have to beat back a last-ditch Republican effort to overturn our new, bipartisan congressional map."

The Montgomery central committee met in September and overruled the recommendation against the map. But it also didn't endorse the map, deciding to take no position.

"I was shocked by how many people stood up to talk against the map," said Valerie Ervin, another Democratic member of the Montgomery County Council who wants the map to be defeated. She said Democrats are grumbling about it at fundraisers and community events. "It is a word-of-mouth thing," she said. "It has been surprising me."

In Prince George's County, the Democratic Central Committee also has decided to stay mum. "There is too much controversy," said Norma Lindsay, the committee chair. "Everyone has a different opinion."

Some Democratic dissent stems from the contentious special session of the General Assembly last October, when some African-American members raised concerns that the plan divides black neighborhoods to bolster the chances of white, incumbent Democrats.

"I've been vocal. I've been on the record," said state Sen. C. Anthony Muse of Prince George's County, the only Democrat to vote against the map in the state's upper body. "The congressional seats were drawn to favor certain candidates rather than to represent neighborhoods in a way that is equal and fair," he said, adding that he has urged his constituents to vote against the map.

State Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat, is taking a slightly different approach. Brochin voted for the map in the legislature, but he wants to see it defeated in November. When constituents ask him his position, he lets them know: Vote no.

"I think the map could be drawn more fairly," Brochin said. "I thought there was a fairer way to do it."

Baltimore Sun reporters John Fritze and Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

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