Redistricting in Md. has element of racial friction

Few states’ delegations in the House of Representatives pack the political punch of little blue Maryland. Among its eight members is a Democratic juggernaut: the House minority whip and ranking members of the powerful budget, intelligence and oversight committees.

The eight also stand out as collectively far more white than the Maryland they have come to represent, the 2010 Census showed. Just a quarter of the state’s representatives are African American even though minorities, most of them blacks, now make up nearly half of the state’s population.

As Maryland’s redistricting process begins, African Americans in and out of state government are increasingly split over whether their top priority should be to push to redraw lines to ensure better representation for blacks or to protect Maryland’s white incumbents because of the coveted positions of power they have attained on Capitol Hill.

Maryland’s legislative black caucus has endorsed a strategy to protect incumbents’ districts while “preserving and strengthening” the two that are represented by African Americans. A grass-roots group in Prince George’s County, backed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, says that’s not good enough.

At a hearing Monday in Prince George’s, the group plans to propose a dramatic shake-up of Maryland’s congressional map to put together a district whose voters might readily elect a third black Maryland member of Congress.

If that plan, or any other to create another majority African American district, were adopted, it would throw into question the reelection prospects of House Minority Whip Rep. Steny H. Hoyer and other Maryland Democratic incumbents.

“The goal is not necessarily to upend Steny Hoyer or any other politician. If they get reelected, that’s great,” said Trevor Otts, co-chairman of the grass-roots group, the Fannie Lou Hamer Political Action Committee. “To do what’s fair, you can’t put who’s getting elected first. If you look at our history, especially in Maryland, we have been drawing [districts] to make sure incumbents get reelected. Whether or not that process harms the community is not something we’ve adequately considered.”

Democrats control redistricting in Maryland. Behind the scenes, several people close to the process say Hoyer will have a big say in how his and other congressional districts are redrawn. It’s highly unlikely, they say, that Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and the state’s Democratic-controlled General Assembly, which is scheduled to convene to vote on a new map in October, would support putting Hoyer’s seat, or that of any of the party’s incumbents, in immediate jeopardy.

However, the Fannie Lou Hamer PAC, which is named after a Mississippi voting rights activist who died in 1977, is threatening that if districts are not redrawn to mirror the voting power of Maryland’s minorities, it will take the state to court. Many of Maryland’s legislative lines involving black communities were decided by judges after legal challenges to the state’s redistricting 10 years ago.

At a minimum, the heightened tension over the racial makeup of Maryland’s congressional districts promises to have a ripple effect.

It has complicated Hoyer’s and other Maryland Democrats’ stated top priority to use redistricting to make it more likely their party picks up a House seat.

With Democrats controlling fewer than half the redistricting efforts in states, Hoyer has said he would like to make freshman Republican Rep. Andy Harris’s district on the Eastern Shore more competitive and give former representative Frank M. Kratovil Jr. (D) a chance to retake the district next year. Other Democrats have said they may try to leverage a growing Democratic population in Frederick or northern Montgomery County to target Western Maryland’s longtime representative, Roscoe G. Bartlett (R).

In a recent letter to Rep. Donna F. Edwards (D), one of Maryland’s two African Americans in Congress, the state’s Legislative Black Caucus warned that it “strongly opposes” using the state’s surging black population to accomplish one of those objectives.

The caucus wrote that Democratic members of the congressional delegation had in private meetings raised the specter of splitting off some African Americans in Prince George’s and Charles counties to bolster Democratic rolls in Harris’s 1st Congressional District.

“A plan such as that would greatly dilute the African American vote and divide communities of interest,” the caucus letter said. Charles County has shifted from a majority white to a majority minority county over the past 10 years, and the percentage of the population in neighboring Prince George’s that is black has grown.

Statewide, African Americans now make up about 30 percent of Maryland’s population, the fourth highest among all states, after Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia. With the numbers of Hispanic and Asian Americans surging, Maryland is 45 percent minority and is on pace to become majority minority over the next 10 years.

Many other states, including Virginia, also have percentages of minority representation in Congress that are not commensurate with, and are most often lower than, their states’ level of minority populations.

Del. Aisha N. Braveboy (D-Prince George’s), co-chairwoman of the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus’s redistricting committee, said that with its Democratic ideals, Maryland should hold itself to the highest standard. She played down differences between black state lawmakers and grass-roots groups such as the PAC that want the state’s politicians to be more assertive in demanding a third minority-held seat in Congress.

“We all understand that our population in the state is not currently in the same proportion as it is in elected office. We have to do our best to ensure African American representation is increased,” Braveboy said.

But, she added, “Steny Hoyer has done a great job representing his district . . . and we have a responsibility to represent maps that are constitutionally valid. If you have very strange or oddly shaped districts drawn for the purpose of creating a majority African American or Hispanic district, that can be challenged in court.”

Other than the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits states from diluting the voting power of minorities, few rules govern the way states draw congressional districts. Case law on the subject is complicated and involves as many questions of social science as of the law.

The Hamer PAC’s plan proposes that in addition to majority minority districts that naturally exist in Prince George’s and Baltimore, a third be created by connecting the remaining black populations that ring the District and the increasingly black suburbs of West Baltimore.

The PAC says that those pockets of African Americans, who are part of a nationwide black migration to the suburbs, have more in common with one another than with some of their neighboring communities.

To make such a district work, the PAC proposes creating a far-flung district of rural voters, stretching from the state’s Eastern Shore to the border of West Virginia. The PAC says rural residents across the state have more in common with one another than with city or suburban voters.

Additionally, the plan would set up a congressional district representing most of Montgomery County that would be poised to tip to a majority minority district in coming years, providing the best chance in Maryland of a Hispanic winning a congressional seat.

Asked about the racial tension in redistricting and what it could portend for his own 5th District, made up of St. Mary’s, Calvert, Charles, and parts of Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties, Hoyer responded through a spokeswoman in an e-mail Friday. He said he is honored to represent all residents of his district and will continue discussing redistricting with state lawmakers to “determine how we can best serve the people of Maryland.”

Otts, the co-chairman of the PAC, said it’s time for blacks to be part of the conversation. “We can’t be caught sitting on our hands. We have to be engaged,” Otts said. “Just because gerrymandering is legal in Maryland doesn’t make it right.”

Staff writer Carol Morello contributed to this report.

Aaron Davis covers D.C. government and politics for The Post and wants to hear your story about how D.C. works — or how it doesn’t.
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