When the General Assembly formally convened yesterday, many eyes focused on a newly released political document authored by Gov. Harry Hughes, a booklet of maps and lines that will dictate political futures all over the state.
The booklet is Hughes' plan for redrawing the state's 47 legislative districts. During the next 90 days, it is sure to arouse instant controversies, fuel attacks on the governor, draw charges of injustice and even change the balance of votes on certain key issues.
But despite all the commotion, the legislature is unlikely to replace Hughes' plan with one of its own by the Feb. 20 deadline. To override Hughes, the legislature would have to vote down his plan and then approve one of its own within 45 days. Some legislative leaders said they would be willing to try to come up with a new plan, but they admit that it would be virtually an impossible task.
So although redistricting itself is not likely to be hotly debated in the General Assembly this year, it will, as one lobbyist put it, "permeate everything in the session."
Legislators who are disgruntled with Hughes, but are powerless to change the maps and lines, will look for other ways to pay him back. "He will be able to create some political alliances, but other people will be out just for sweet revenge," says one senior legislative official.
One legislator who is known to be disappointed with the governor's plan is Senate President James Clark, whose home base of Howard County was divvied up to help neighboring Prince George's retain some of its current legislative power.
Clark is an influential leader in the Senate who must work closely with Hughes and whose legislative support is invaluable to the governor. He is also one of five members of a Hughes-appointed redistricting commission that specifically recommended leaving the Howard County area intact.
Not one to seek revenge, Clark is unlikely to use redistricting as a base of opposition to Hughes in the legislative session. But he did not hide his displeasure, saying Hughes' proposal "practically decimated" his county area.
The slight to Clark has been explained as a Hughes favor to Prince George's legislators, a powerful group that warned "all hell would break loose" if the political boundaries recommended for the county by the commission were not redrawn by the governor.
Del. John R. Hargreaves (D-Eastern Shore), the conservative chairman of the Appropriations Committee whose own boundaries have been shifted to his disadvantage, was asked before the plan was released what recourse he would have with Hughes.
"I guess the chairman has the opportunity to hold a bill hostage," Hargreaves said, puffing on a cigarette as he pondered the possibility of losing his district. "What the hell, this chairman has been accused hundreds of times of doing that. That doesn't mean he did. That doesn't mean he wouldn't."
Like many legislative leaders, Hughes sees redistricting as a no-win proposition."There will be repercussions no matter what," he said early this week as he put the final touches on his plan.
Keeping to his low-key style, Hughes tried to depoliticize redistricting as much as possible from the start. He appointed the commission to hold hearings around the state and then make recommendations, thereby taking some of the political heat off him in an election year. But despite these maneuvers, Hughes soon became entwined in the politics of the process when, according to Prince George's legislators, he offered to help them out. The changes he proposed this week are sure to bring him into the political fray.
What Hughes may be banking on is a belief that his plan is "fair," and that although redistricting may be of grave concern to politicians, it is hardly a source of anguish for the average voter.
"People relate to things like community interest more than whether they are in district 1A or district 1B," Hughes said.
The complexity of redistricting is baffling even to those closest to it. One expert on the subject, exhausted by months of draining analysis, pointed in frustration to a 29-page booklet that describes boundary changes in one precinct.
All of this just to guarantee one-man, one-vote representation in the legislature.
"How fine should the lines be drawn?" asked one legislative leader. "In my opinion, it has gone on too long. I'll be glad when it's over. I've come to have questions about whether the benefits, on a national basis, justify the energy and resources."