O’Malley, Democrats wage fight for House via Maryland redistricting

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s redistricting commission will release a plan in coming days to attempt to harness the Washington area’s surging — and largely Democratic — population growth over the last decade to help Democrats retake control of the House of Representatives.

How far O’Malley (D) is willing to go to achieve that goal is now the question.

According to interviews and drafts of two leading proposals obtained by The Washington Post, O’Malley and a cadre of the state’s top Democratic lawmakers are engaged in a secretive, final round of negotiations over whether to go further than expected and try to unseat not one but potentially both of Maryland’s Republican congressmen.

At a minimum, the maps make clear that O’Malley will seek to oust Western Maryland’s 10-term Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett (R) by moving a swath of liberal Montgomery County voters into the traditionally conservative 6th Congressional District.

But O’Malley and lawmakers are also considering a more radical option, according to the maps and a Maryland Democratic Party official with knowledge of the talks.

That plan would give former representative Frank M. Kratovil Jr. (D) a leg up in a rematch with one of the GOP’s most conservative freshmen lawmakers, 1st Congressional District Rep. Andy Harris. It would do so by lumping thousands of reliably Democratic voters, including some African Americans in Prince George’s County, with rural Republicans on the Eastern Shore.

Neither plan would produce a “slam dunk” victory for a Democratic challenger in either district, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to freely describe private discussions and Democratic party calculations.

Either option, however, would expose O’Malley and Maryland Democrats to charges of gerrymandering.

If either plan is enacted and successful, Republicans could account for just one in eight — or even none — of the state’s congressional delegation after 2012. That would be incongruous with the state’s political makeup. More than a quarter of voters in the state are registered Republicans and at least four in 10 consistently vote for a Republican for governor.

“Maryland Democrats are planning to blatantly divide a politically cohesive part of the state; it’s no different than what Republicans are doing in Texas,” said David Wasserman, House editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Wasserman compared the splitting of Republicans in Western Maryland with redistricting in Texas, where critics say Republicans have sought to undermine the voting power of Hispanics.

“The fact is, redistricting is an arms race and Maryland is one of the few weapons Democrats have,” Wasserman said. Nationwide, Republicans control redistricting in 202 congressional districts to 47 for Democrats; the rest are governed by independent or bipartisan groups, according to an analysis by Cook. But redistricting in the states has so far produced a wash for the two parties.

Given that, any new battlegrounds in Maryland could figure more prominently in the national calculus over control of the House. Spokesmen for O’Malley and other members of the redistricting commission declined to comment on the two maps. O’Malley is expected to call a special session for the General Assembly to vote on a new map on Oct. 17.

Opting for the more dramatic option, however, will be no easy task for O’Malley.

To take on both Bartlett and Harris, the governor would have to significantly redraw not only the two Republican districts but also every congressional line in the state.

That would leave Maryland’s six incumbent Democrats with the uneasy task of running for reelection next year in districts with boundaries that would be far different than they are today.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the ranking member on the House Budget Committee, for example, would have only 50 percent of his current district and would have to introduce himself new to voters in Washington, Frederick and other counties. Rep. John Sarbanes, would have only 37 percent of his current 3rd Congressional District.

“I would like to keep my district together as much as we could,” said Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger after a redistricting meeting with O’Malley on Friday. “When you represent someone for over nine years, that’s important to me. But it’s a process. . . . I know what I want, but it’s not me voting on it,” he said.

Ruppersberger was one of six of the state’s sitting House members who accepted invitations to O’Malley’s office on Friday to discuss redistricting. Most of the lawmakers said O’Malley did not show them any maps, but only described his goals and asked for input.

Rep. Elijiah E. Cummings, whose Baltimore district shrunk the most and would expand into Baltimore County under the draft maps, left his meeting and said only that there was no map.

“We have more work to do; we’re not done yet,” he said.

But even as the meetings took place, officials were fine-tuning the maps on Friday. And for some growing excitement among the state’s Democratic faithful about the possibility of sweeping Maryland’s House delegation, others said the potential pitfalls and backlash O’Malley could face from his party’s incumbents would likely squash the most ambitious plan.

In either case, the draft maps suggest the revamp from the 2010 Census will force hundreds of thousands in Washington’s Maryland suburbs to get used to having a new representative in Congress.

Van Hollen would lose a portion of his Montgomery constituency, as would Rep. Donna F. Edwards, who might expand into Anne Arundel County.

The extension of Bartlett’s district down the I-270 corridor, into Gaithersburg and parts of Rockville could also bring a new face to the state’s political scene, or provide an outlet for one of Montgomery’s many ambitious young lawmakers.

State Sen. Robert J. Garagiola, the majority leader, is known to be interested in running if Bartlett’s district is put into contention.

Bartlett did not meet with O’Malley on Friday, but the governor’s office said it was because of a scheduling conflict and that the two plan to sit down this week.

Harris, a former state senator who unsuccessfully sought to have redistricting carried out by an independent commission when he was in office, did return to Annapolis on Friday to meet with the governor. He laughed when asked if there was anything Republicans could do to prevent O’Malley or Democrats from targeting his or Bartlett’s seats.

“Look, that’s the way redistricting works in Maryland,” he said. “At least, that’s the way it works for now.”

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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