Black, white, Democrat and Republican, residents of Prince George’s County on Monday delivered a single unifying message to the redistricting commission of Gov. Martin O’Malley (D): Keep a proud county whole.
Don’t slice and dice Prince George’s reliably Democratic population to help elect congressmen from less blue parts of the state, residents said. And to reelect incumbents to Annapolis, don’t carve up natural communities and neighborhoods, limiting residents’ ability to have a representative who fully understands their needs.
The sentiment drew applause repeatedly from the nearly 200 people who attended Monday night’s hearing at Prince George’s Community College, the first in Washington’s Maryland suburbs intended to help shape the redistricting plan that O’Malley must release this fall.
But in practice, what did Prince Georgians’ mantra mean? When it came to redrawing specific lines, that was less clear. County residents wrestled with the questions of identity inherent in redistricting when the wants dictated by one’s worldview and the needs of one’s neighborhood don’t neatly align.
Most Prince George’s residents said they want compact and contiguous districts around their homes but also for Democrats to maintain clear control in the state, which party leaders have accomplished over decades by drawing districts even many Democrats in the state now deride as gerrymandered.
Many argued that the meandering 4th Congressional District, represented by Rep. Donna F. Edwards (D), should no longer zigzag deep into Montgomery County, but should be consolidated entirely within the borders of Prince George’s to better represent the county and its overwhelming majority of African-American voters.
Others countered that lawmakers shouldn’t do that, because they should keep intact the diversity of Rep. Steny H. Hoyer’s 5th Congressional District, which currently stretches from southern Maryland into northern Prince George’s, and that they should protect Hoyer because of all he has done for the county.
Del. Melony G. Griffith, chair of the county’s 23-member delegation in the House of Delegates acknowledged the many differences of opinion in the room.
“Quite honestly, there are differing views among us,” she testified. “Even with our 23 members, you would probably have 23 maps.”
One group from the county sought to take a stand at the meeting — a grass-roots group called the Fannie Lou Hamer Political Action Committee. Its members followed through on plans to introduce a dramatic shake-up of Maryland’s congressional map, designed to put together a district whose voters might readily elect a third black Maryland member of Congress.
About one in five of the nearly three dozen residents who testified on Monday did so in favor of the PAC’s plan, which was developed in consultation with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. The PAC’s plan proposes that in addition to mostly minority districts that naturally exist in Prince George’s and Baltimore, a third be created by connecting the remaining black populations that ring the District and the increasingly black suburbs of West Baltimore.
The controversial plan is unlikely to gain traction among state Democratic leaders because it could endanger the reelection prospects of Hoyer and other party incumbents. But the plan and comments from other residents who testified had the effect of prompting introspection about the appropriate level of African-American representation for Marylanders, both on Capitol Hill and in Annapolis.
A quarter of the state’s representatives in the House of Representatives are African American, even though minorities, most of them blacks, now make up nearly half of the state’s population. Maryland Democratic leaders hope to leverage some of that growing population to make the party more competitive in one of the two remaining Republican House districts.
Karren Pope-Onwukwe, a Prince George’s attorney, quoted from President Obama’s best-selling “The Audacity of Hope” in urging Maryland lawmakers to look beyond party and self-interest to do what’s best for Prince George’s residents.
Maryland is a Democratic state and its lines should reflect that, she said, but communities should be kept together, and not gerrymandered.
“None of these changes can happen of their own accord,” Pope-Onwukwe quoted. “Each would require a change in attitude among those in power … to loosen their hold on incumbency, fight with their friends, as well as their enemies on behalf of abstract ideas.”
Mykel Harris, an African American and chairman of the Prince George’s GOP Central Committee, said that although he voted for a different president and his political views differ from most of his neighbors, legislative lines should reflect community.
“While I don’t have a specific map, what I would say to you is that we can tell good government when we see it,” Harris testified. “We want boundaries that reflect our communities because at the end of the day, when the partisan battle is over, I’m going to shop at the same Safeway as my neighbor, I’m going to pay the same taxes as he is in Prince George’s County, and I’ll probably attend the same church he goes to, even though I voted for a different president.”