Almost every year, Baltimore state Sen. Julian L. Lapides, the self-styled conscience of the Maryland legislature, introduces a bill to allow "death with dignity" for the desperately ill. And every year his colleagues kill it, relishing the chance to put Lapides in his place.
This year, many legislators were chuckling at the irony of it all: They expected to pull the plug on Lapides' political career.
In the high-stakes battle of redistricting, Lapides' fellow Baltimore legislators voted several weeks ago to wipe his old district from the city map, leaving the sharp-tongued, white, liberal incumbent in an 80 percent black district.
Lapides' political doom appeared so certain that luckier legislators joked among themselves: "Jack doesn't believe in death with dignity anymore."
But Lapides' fortunes flip-flopped suddenly this week, and now the joke in the back corridors of the State House is that Jack Lapides must have nine lives. His Lazarus-like revival came when the state redistricting commission unveiled its long-awaited proposal for Baltimore's new political map, overruling the city delegation. In the middle of the map is a contorted-looking district in which Lapides happens to be the only incumbent senator, giving him a good shot at reelection in 1982.
Acknowledging that the new district looks "funny" -- it has been compared variously to the Greek letter Omega and a sandcastle -- an elated and sassy Lapides quipped yesterday: "Redistricting is personal. Districts don't have to be square. You have to have passion in life and in redistricting too . . . . It's a free form. It's art."
Lapides' near death and resurrection provide a classic study in Maryland redistricting -- the contest for survival that mixes dreams, schemes and a touch of the bizarre with the constitutional principle of one-man, one-vote.
For Lapides, the trouble began when the 1980 census was released, showing a drop of more than 100,000 in Baltimore's population since 1970. That meant the city had to forfeit two of its 11 districts, and incumbents quickly targeted Lapides as one of the senators to go.
"Guys like Jack who get cut out claim it's because they're independent, but it's not," one legislator cracked at the time. "It's because they're obnoxious."
Lapides, a Baltimore lawyer, relishes being an odd-man-out in the General Assembly -- not the sort who attracts defenders when political lives are at stake. A resident of fashionable Bolton Hill, Baltimore's version of Georgetown, he is gentry, from his fine suits to his intellectual oratory. Senate President James Clark always recognizes Lapides in floor debates as "the gentleman from Bolton Hill." (Other senators are called upon by their district numbers.)
Lapides also makes a point of blowing whistles on back-room dealmakers, a technique that earned him a place in Maryland history back during the scandal-scarred tenure of Gov. Marvin Mandel. It was Lapides, ranting and raving about "this venal piece of legislation," who in 1972 filibustered to death a horseracing bill that later was linked to the political scandal that toppled the former governor.
"This sounds awful and self-serving, but I have very high standards. I'm inflexible and I'm obstinate," he said. "But I have the respect of my colleagues. They hate my guts but I have their respect . . . . There's something sleazy about battling on redistricting, which can only be viewed as trying to save your own skin.
"I'm uncomfortable in that role, but I'm also adroit at it," he continued. "And if I have to do it, I do it. So I did it."
What he did was to match his foes at their own game. After the delegation map was drafted in September, Lapides unveiled one of his own, centered on an inner-city district uniting the downtown "renaissance neighborhoods" that had been split in the earlier plan. He mined the displeasure the delegation plan had spawned among blacks and inner-city white liberals, recruiting them to his camp. He appealed to Gov. Harry Hughes to intervene. ("I spoke to Harry's lobbbyist," Lapides said. "Well, actually I yelled at him.")
Gradually, his proposal gained credibility. Other legislators began jiggling the lines of what became known as "the Lapides plan," tailoring it to their own needs. The "modified-Lapides" plan emerged. Then the "modified modified Lapides" plan. House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Baltimore), a member of the redistricting commission who was determined to make peace in the rancorous Baltimore fight, found that the best plan for the city -- the one with the strongest consensus -- happened to protect the once-imperiled Lapides.
"It satisfied Jack's political problem," said Cardin, "but more importantly, it preserved a central city district," and answered the black caucus' call for a increased minority voting strength.
Lapides benefitted, too, from living near two popular delegates whom most city legislators did want to save, according to one Baltimore politician. "If Jack had been in a position where we couldn't help him, I wouldn't have cried," the politician said. "But the fact that he's in a district with Ann Perkins and Torrey Brown put him in the right place."
The new district leaves Lapides, Brown and Perkins with about one-third of their existing one, plus several conservative white neighborhoods where, despite his liberal reputation, Lapides is expected to win many votes through his tireless campaign style. "If Jack works it right, he could go to Florida for the summer and still win in 1982," cracked Del. Paul Weisengoff (D-Baltimore), who has a talent for predicting vote counts.
But while Lapides is basking in victory, many of his old constituents are fuming. They point out that while their senator was saved, most of the old district was shattered.
"I just couldn't believe it when I saw that plan," said Linda Eberhart, an elementary school reading teacher and neighborhood activist in the district who tried for several months to persuade politicians to keep the "renaissance neighborhoods" together. "What they have done is they have saved elected officials without caring about the neighborhoods. We are very upset."