Robert McCartney
Robert McCartney
Columnist

Md. Democrats face moral dilemmas on gambling, congressional redistricting

Maryland Democrats must grapple with their conscience over how to vote in November on two ballot issues that pose wrenching choices between noble high-mindedness and raw opportunism.

On congressional redistricting, does the left-of-center voter reject a grotesquely gerrymandered electoral map, even though doing so might cost the Democrats a future U.S. House seat?

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On casinos, does she or he support expanding gambling to create jobs and raise government revenue (especially in Prince George’s County), even if it tends to pick the pocket of the poor?

Opting openly for crass expediency, the state’s Democratic establishment is pushing for “yes” votes on both ballot questions. (Many Republicans will happily vote “no” out of both principle and pragmatism.)

Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and other party leaders support Question 5, which would endorse the new map of congressional districts. The lines were redrawn with the blatant purpose of boosting the Democrats’ majority in the state’s U.S. House delegation from 6-2 to 7-1.

Democratic leaders are also urging yes on Question 7, for which you might have seen a television ad or two. It would authorize a new casino in Prince George’s and permit live table games such as blackjack and roulette to be added at casinos throughout the state.

Party bosses, beware: The Democratic base, which makes up a sizable majority of Maryland voters, won’t necessarily go along.

On gambling, at least, there are signs of a grass-roots revolt. A Baltimore Sun poll last week found the gambling measure losing by a 15-point margin, and another survey found it statistically tied.

A backlash is also developing against the new congressional map, although it hasn’t gotten much publicity. (An intra-party dispute motivates some of the opposition. The gerrymandering annoys some Montgomery County Democrats because the map was designed partly to help Baltimore area politicians.)

On the congressional map, I definitely support voting one’s conscience — and that means no to Question 5 and the bizarrely drawn district lines.

As I’ve written before, partisan redistricting tends to create gerrymandered, politically lopsided districts. And that pushes politicians to ideological extremes and encourages gridlock.

The Democrats’ defense is that the Republicans brazenly gerrymander in other states (such as Texas). In this view, Democrats can’t unilaterally disarm.

But when it comes to something as important as the integrity of elections, a citizen’s top priority should be the system’s rectitude.

“When you’re voting, you’re not just doing so on one issue but to sustain a process,” said Ian Ward, an assistant professor of political theory at the University of Maryland in College Park.

“You have to consider the long-term implications for democracy itself. That needs to outweigh shorter-term or partisan considerations,” Ward said. (Since the state employs him, Ward made a point of saying he was expressing a personal view.)

Sadly, a vote against Question 5 wouldn’t guarantee a change in the map. It would just force the Democratic leaders in Annapolis to submit a new map for the 2014 elections.

In theory, they could make trivial changes or none at all. At least a no vote would mean they’d get a lot of grief for doing so.

For me, the gambling question is a tougher call.

On the one hand, I hate that state government is actively supporting an activity that contributes to addiction and extracts money disproportionately from lower-income people. Casino companies’ campaign contributions have tainted the political process. Their endless, confusing advertisements befoul the airwaves.

But I’m willing to cover my nose and support Question 7 for one reason: It’s the only way right now to quickly help the Prince George’s economy. And heaven knows the county needs a boost.

Prince George’s estimates that the casino, which it hopes to build at National Harbor, would yield more than $40 million a year in additional county revenue. Much would go to improve education and law enforcement and to battle home foreclosures. That would be in addition to anything extra it gets from the state for schools as a result of expanded gaming.

Perhaps more important, a new casino would create up to 4,000 permanent jobs in Prince George’s. It would be the biggest creator of new jobs in the county since the 2,000 it got with the opening of the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, also at National Harbor.

Prince George’s is the weak link in our region’s economy. County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, who opposed gambling in the past, became a supporter out of sheer financial need.

“We have to deal with the reality of where we are in this economy,” Baker said.

I’m ready to take Baker at his word on the casino. But that sleazy congressional map has got to go.

For previous Robert McCartney columns, go to washingtonpost.com/
mccartney.

 
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