This was supposed to be the easy part: a vote on House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin's "noncontroversial proposal" for beginning the politically explosive process of redrawing Maryland's 47 legislative districts.
But when Gov. Harry Hughes' task force today took up Cardin's proposal -- which simply divided the state into six geographical blocks without outlining specific districts -- the members immediately began to bicker and decided not even to vote on the matter until it is aired at a public hearing next month.
A frustrated Cardin, who had introduced his plan by saying, "If there is something controversial in this proposal, I'm not aware of it," was forced in the end to admit that, when it comes to the once-in-a-decade task of redrawing legislative districts to reflect the latest census, "Anything you do is controversial."
Dozens of political futures in Maryland, as in other states, now hinge on the proposal that Hughes' Committee on Reapportionment and Redistricting will send to the governor in November. When the legislature adopts some version of the plan next February, the balance of political power will shift to the suburbs, and many incumbents will lose their once-safe seats.
With so much at stake, paranoia has saturated each precinct in the state. "There's a lot of electricity in the air," said Prince George's County Sen. Thomas V. (Mike) Miller, as dozens of his wary colleagues whispered among themselves in small huddles around the meeting room. "Everyone is looking at the next person, wondering who's got a plan in their pocket, who's trying to do each other in."
Most politicians around the state claim to have drawn the perfect new district map, which usually protects the existing district of the legislator who drew it. Every county delegation has scheduled meetings with Cardin, the state house's leading power broker.
Nowhere is the map-drawing mania more feverish than in the city of Baltimore, which will have to give up six central city seats in the 141-member House of Delegates and two in the 47-member Senate, the biggest loss of any city or county. At least 13 competing plans for new city districts are now said to be circulating, all proposing different ways to accommodate the city's 10 percent loss in population since 1970.
The paranoia was most evident in the uproar that ensued recently after the Baltimore Board of Election Supervisors quietly drew new precinct lines that were billed as being politically innocuous.
"Some people were saying it was to help the black caucus, some people were saying it was to help [Sen.] Jack Lapides," who is believed likely to lose his central city district, said Senate Majority Leader Rosalie Abrams (D-Baltimore). "Some people said it was the east side of the city, some people said it was the west side. Everyone's just so up tight. I thought it was a conspiracy against me. . . . This is a deadly game we're playing."
But while Baltimore is feuding about how to reapportion its diminished population among fewer districts, the growing outer suburbs of Frederick, Howard, Carroll and Anne Arundel counties are vying for the seats that the formidable 44-member city delegation will lose.
All three southern Maryland countries have grown faster than neighboring Prince George's, whose delegation is now jockeying to keep from losing one of its eight Senate districts. To hold onto its present strength, Prince George's would have to extend its lines further south or north -- moves that have divided the county's politicians and are being fiercely opposed by its Charles, Howard and Montgomery neighbors.
Cardin's proposal, and the committee's effort to start drawing Maryland's new political map, foundered on a regional battle similar to these inter-county disputes. Cardin said he was hoping to "rough out" six geographical regions of the state, each assigned a block of legislative seats.
But even the rough regional lines became subject to rancorous debate. Republican Barbara Fetterhoff of Hagerstown, one of two citizens on the governor's five-member task force, bitterly protested Cardin's plan to put Maryland's three westernmost counties into one geographical block equivalent in population to three districts.
After several minutes of argument, Cardin reluctantly withdrew his motion. "I don't think there is anything in the motion I made today that is controversial -- except that it is a motion," said Cardin, as the committee agreed, but only after several more minutes of debate, to submit the matter to a public hearing on Aug. 4.