Jul 16, 2012, 03:09AM

How Congressional Redistricting Affects Maryland

Political careers that are fashioned in heaven often do not survive here on earth.

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Back in the 1960s, Baltimore City had three Democratic congressmen of its own. They were among the most powerful lawmakers on Capitol Hill by dint of their seniority, rank and chairmanships of major committees that controlled the nation’s roads and highways, its ports and waterways and the very purse strings of Congress itself. Add their education together and there were barely enough years to squeeze out a high school diploma.

They were: Edward A Garmatz, of the East Baltimore’s old Third District; George H. Fallon, of the Northeast’s Fourth District; and Samuel Friedel, of Northwest Baltimore’s Seventh District. Fallon was in the family sign-painting business, Garmatz had been an electrician at National Brewery and Friedel operated, in the quaint language of the era, a small loan business.

Across the line in the District of Columbia, their day jobs were: Garmatz, chairman of the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee; Fallon, chairman of the all-powerful Public Works Committee; and Friedel, chairman of the Government Operations Committee. In Washington, pork is power. They, in short, brought home the bacon. 

The three survived the first round of congressional redistricting in 1962 because nobody could figure out how to deal with the radically new court-ordered “one-man, one vote” dictate. So instead of re-drawing the Maryland map and shuffling voters around to new, unfamiliar warrens, the state simply created a new box on the congressional flow-chart called a “congressman at-large” to represent the new growth in population.

That bit of legerdemain added an eighth member of congress, Rep. Carlton R. Sickles (D) to Maryland’s seven-man roster with a statewide district and constituency, kind of like a third U.S. Senator without portfolio. House members represent people, senators represent geography. In redistricting, one state’s gain is another’s loss.

In its heyday, Baltimore was the nation’s sixth most populous city. Today it ranks 24th, having shrunk from nearly a million people to its present census count of 630,000. The city, reflecting its diminishing population, now shares three congressional districts attached to surrounding counties—the Second, which is largely Baltimore and Harford Counties, the Third, which extends to Annapolis, and the Seventh, which takes in much of Howard County.

But political careers that are fashioned in heaven (or in the precincts) often do not survive here on earth. Redistricting eventually did its insidious work and broke up that old gang of ours. Fallon was defeated in 1970 by Paul Sarbanes; Friedel was nosed out by a scant 32 votes in 1970 by Parren Mitchell in a three-way race involving Carl Friedler; and Garmatz, sensing changing times (and congressional districts), chose not to run in 1972.

And now redistricting, the once-a-decade exercise in legalized bodysnatching, is again front and center, this time not in the legislature or in the courts—where the newly drawn map has already survived one challenge—but, of all places, likely on the November ballot. The referendum, if it narrowly survives the 55,736 threshold name-count, is the handicraft of Del. Neil Parrott, of Washington County, who’s devised one more way for Republicans to gum up democracy in action and swing Maryland dangerously toward plebiscite government, a polite term for mob rule. 

Parrott has designed a computer program to gather signatures electronically over the Internet that facilitates what used to be a laborious process of hand-gathering names, often by workers paid by the name. Parrot was also instrumental in collecting signatures to petition Maryland’s version of the “Dream Act”—in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants—as well as the same-sex marriage law, which will appear on the November ballot as well. There is no hard evidence that Parrott’s activities are part of the GOP’s determined obstructionism in Congress or in Republican-controlled state houses across the country, but the push-back certainly fits the pattern.

In a well-known nutshell, the new redistricting map tucks it to Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-6th) by shifting a huge chunk of Montgomery County into his Western Maryland district, which stretches like an elongated noodle across the top length of Maryland, and attaches a land-grab of Prince George’s County to Montgomery. To accommodate the population shifts, the map resembles a giant squid with tentacles splayed from its center.

To aggrieved Republicans, losing outcomes denote poor governance. They claim the map is gerrymandered. Translation: they’d perform the same devious trick if they had the chance. The Democratic-controlled General Assembly adopted the map and the courts have upheld it against charges of racism, among other futile arguments.

Democrats will no doubt challenge the petition in court if it advances to the ballot. And the courts have generally been reluctant to intrude upon the actions of legislatures, wary of the separation of government powers and allowing legislatures the freedom to settle their own differences. Judges, too, have often seemed in quiet connivance with legislators in recognition of their patronage for lifetime appointments.

Parrott and his like-minded signatories argue, no matter how illogically, that the redistricting map favors urban and suburban areas at the expense of rural areas. But that’s what redistricting is all about, for crying out loud. It follows population and not nostalgia for the good old days of farms and livestock. The Supreme Court said one man, one vote and not one cow, one vote. What’s more, the redistricting map involves eight separate congressional districts and not a statewide issue. Why, for example, should voters on the Eastern Shore have a say over the configuration of a Montgomery County district? So does it really belong on a statewide ballot?

Part of the difficulty is that there is only one guideline for Congressional redistricting and that is population balance. Each district must have approximately the same population and in Maryland that computes to about 675,000 people in each of the state’s eight districts. There are no general rules, such as there are in legislative reapportionment, about community of interests or contiguity. Another problem is that the size of the Congress is fixed by law at 535—435 members of the House and 100 members of the Senate. So there is really no choice but to reshape the districts rather than add or subtract bodies.

As it stands, the incumbent members of Congress are actually straddling two districts until the election, attempting to maintain a grip on the old while trying to establish a presence in the new. To confound matters, they could end up on the ballot with the very same plan that could upend them once again. If that happens, the General Assembly will return and repeat essentially the same map again for the 2014 elections. Spare the voters the referendum and the grief.

Yet it is a twist that, no matter what happens, all of Maryland’s incumbents except Bartlett appear safe in November, even the outlier Rep. Andy Harris (R-1st), who represents the most gerrymandered district in Maryland. Harris’ First District haphazardly traverses the Chesapeake Bay and places Cockeysville, in Baltimore County, in the same land-grab as, say, Easton and Cambridge, on the Eastern Shore. But Republicans have no complaint about gerrymandering in that case because Harris was left untouched in order to decapitate Bartlett. It was impossible for Democrats to displace both Republicans.

Through the decades of redistricting and accompanying loss of power, Maryland has regained much of its earlier stature within the congressional ranks. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-5th) is House minority whip, a step behind Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), the House minority leader and former speaker, who represents California but whose roots are in Baltimore’s Little Italy, which her father, Thomas D’Alesandro, once represented in Congress. Rep. Elijah Cummings, of Baltimore City, is the ranking Democrat on the House Government Operations Committee, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-6th), is the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee. And Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-2nd) has immersed himself in national intelligence and veterans affairs.)

At its best, redistricting levels the playing field, kind of like the salary cap and the draft, to borrow a sports comparison. At its worst, it succumbs to gerrymandering, the urge to seize the numerical advantage in a Congress that is totally detested by the voters. As the well-worn line goes, they’re all bums except my bum. He’s okay. As a result of that reasoning, the faces of Congress rarely change. The problem with redistricting is that the good are lumped with the bad.



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