For Maryland Democrats, redistricting referendum forces a look in the mirror

September 30, 2012

Maryland residents will have a special one-two punch when they go to the polls next month, voting both for congressional candidates and a controversial map that sets new boundaries for the state’s eight congressional districts.

Question 5 on this fall’s ballot asks voters to accept or reject the way Gov. Martin O’Malley and his Democratic allies in the General Assembly have redrawn congressional lines, scrambling the representation of 1.6 million voters to help Democrats gain an extra seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Republicans and some minority groups oppose the plan, calling it a gerrymander. They collected more than 59,000 signatures to put the redistricting plan on the ballot for the first time in more than half a century.

The referendum presents a conundrum for many in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1. Polls show wide distaste in both parties for gerrymandering. But Maryland Democrats agree that their greater good would be served by unseating one of the state’s two Republican congressmen — no matter the means.

Luckily for conflicted Maryland Democrats, they might have it both ways.

Under Question 5, Maryland voters theoretically would send state lawmakers back to the drawing board to come up with a better map than the one a federal judge decried as legal but a “Rorschach-like eyesore” that splits communities of like interests.

But lawyers and leading state Democrats say the vote will be no more than symbolic. There is nothing in the referendum preventing O’Malley and the General Assembly, which is controlled by Democrats, from reenacting the same map next year.

And nullifying it Nov. 6, they say, will not undo the results of this year’s congressional races.

The map has altered the political landscape, particularly in the new 1st and 6th congressional districts, which are held by the only two Republicans in the Maryland House delegation.

The 1st District, on the Eastern Shore, was one of the nation’s most competitive just two years ago. The incumbent is Rep. Andy Harris, a Republican from Cockeysville. But with the new map, it was packed with extra Republicans from Baltimore County.

This was done to keep incumbent Democrats safe around Baltimore and to make the 6th District in Western Maryland, long held by Rep. Roscoe P. Bartlett (R), majority Democratic.

Wendy Rosen won the Democratic nomination in Maryland’s 1st Congressional District but was forced to end her campaign abruptly after party officials disclosed that they had learned that she had previously committed fraud, voting in recent presidential contests in Maryland and Florida.

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s proposal to redraw Congressional districts would give 1.6 million people a different U.S. representative. Here’s a look at how O’Malley’s proposal compares with today’s districts.

The party conducts only scant background checks on its candidates. But its seeming uninterest in her, and its lack of knowledge about her activities in Florida, revealed how officials viewed the new 1st District as all but a lost cause for Democrats.

Then there’s Bartlett’s 6th Congressional District, which, under the new map, stretches nearly 200 miles, from the West Virginia line to the Capital Beltway. The district takes in nearly 350,000 mostly Democratic voters in Frederick and Montgomery counties.

The change has made Bartlett’s seat one of the most precarious nationally for Republicans to hold onto in November.

The rise of the Democratic nominee in that contest, John Delaney, however, has also underscored the unpredictable nature of redistricting.

Founder of the Chevy Chase commercial finance firm CapitalSource, Delaney was able to use a slice of his personal fortune in the party’s primary to defeat the establishment favorite, state Senate Majority Leader Robert Garagiola (Montgomery).

Smelling victory, the state’s formidable slate of Democratic incumbents has since rallied around Delaney, including U.S. House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer and the ranking members of the powerful budget, intelligence and oversight committees: Reps. Chris Van Hollen, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and Elijiah E. Cummings.

“The party made it almost impossible to have a chance to win [the 1st] . . . it was obvious they made the decision to write Rob Garagiola into the [6th] District, and that’s where they have concentrated their time,” said Rosen, who left the race so late that her name will still be on the ballot.

With allegations of voter fraud referred to authorities in Florida, Rosen declined to address her exit from the race but said Democrats should have been more fair with redistricting. Rosen said she thought the party missed an opportunity to win all eight of Maryland’s congressional seats by making them more competitive and winning in a battle of ideas at the ballot box.

“We’ve got legislators who have written themselves districts with a 23-point advantage. They’re great people and deserve to be reelected. But if they could have sacrificed 2 points here and 2 points there, we could have had a fighting chance in the 1st. Democrats should have done that for their own best interest.”

Good-government groups largely agree that the map is flawed and unfair.

In making the 6th District competitive for a Democrat, they contend, O’Malley and the legislature split majority-minority Montgomery into three districts that will be represented by white men in Congress.

And more broadly, as in most states where redistricting is controlled by politicians and not independent commissions, Maryland’s congressional districts have been drawn with partisan control in mind, pushing candidates further left and right in primaries and narrowing the role for moderate voices in either party, the Maryland League of Women Voters argued in testifying against the state’s redistricting plan last year.

“Maryland’s governor and legislators should assess the responsibility for their role in creating a dysfunctional Congress and accept the proposition that just because you can create such boundaries does not mean you should,” league President Nancy Soreng testified.

Del. Neil C. Parrott, the Washington County Republican who led efforts to put redistricting on the ballot, said he is convinced that if voters reject the map, it will prove to be more than symbolic. He pointed to a 1962 referendum led by the league that resulted in a significant rewrite.

Parrott said he thinks the legislature would be under intense public pressure to produce a better map, not rubber-stamp the existing one. Every member will be up for reelection in 2014, he said, and O’Malley and Democratic leaders “cannot afford to . . . ignore voters.”

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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