The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Accusations of gerrymandering have deepened divisions in this Democratic suburb near D.C.

The public will have a chance to testify about two maps that the Prince George’s County Council in Maryland is considering during a public hearing Nov. 16


Photo captions in a previous version of this story gave an incorrect first name for Robert Thurston. This version has been corrected.

Allegations that Prince George’s County Council members are gerrymandering their districts to consolidate power ahead of the 2022 elections have roiled residents and deepened divisions among Democrats in this deep-blue Maryland community.

As the council enters its final weeks of the decennial redistricting process with two very different maps on the table, frustration is growing. The body is legally required to choose by the end of the month.

One, largely uncontentious, map was presented by the nonpartisan redistricting commission. It makes small changes along the boundaries of council districts to account for population changes recorded in the 2020 Census.

The other was crafted by council members and was supported by six of the body’s 11 members. It provides for sweeping changes including putting most of a previously divided city into one council district and creating a majority-Latino jurisdiction. This map also draws three liberal candidates entirely out of the districts in which they were considering running — or had started campaigning. On the council, victories for those candidates could mean a shift in power toward a more liberal bloc in this suburb of D.C.

The arguments that followed the introduction of that map last month intensified the split between a mostly younger, more liberal generation of leaders and the county’s Democratic establishment. Unlike partisan battles about redistricting at the state level in Maryland and elsewhere in the country, the debate in Prince George’s County, a Democratic stronghold that is more than 80 percent Black and Latino, is being fought entirely among its Democratic leaders.

Residents rallied in College Park, the city that is home to the University of Maryland; sounded off on local listservs and deluged council members’ inboxes with emails. Two of the politicians who would be eliminated from their races, along with groups supporting them, launched door-knocking campaigns to raise awareness about the two maps, one of which the council must adopt by Nov. 30.

“We need to know ‘why,’ ” said retiree Patricia Middleton, whose historic African American community would be moved from District 3 to District 1 under the map supported by the council majority. “What is in it for us? … This seems all political to me.”

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Although council members have not publicly acknowledged wanting to exclude particular candidates, Council Chair Calvin Hawkins (D-At Large) said in an interview that politics probably played a role in redistricting plan.

“I am not acting like I am naive. I know this is a political process,” Hawkins said in an interview. “Everyone knew where everyone lived.”

Council member Derrick Leon Davis (D-District 6) on Oct. 14 introduced the original map that would exclude former council member Eric Olson, who plans to run in District 3, Krystal Oriadha in District 7 and Tamara Davis Brown in District 9.

Oriadha and Brown lost their council races in 2018 by fewer than 60 votes each. Oriadha said she was planning her campaign to challenge the incumbent, and Brown said she was considering a run.

Davis said his map reflected policy, not politics. He acknowledged in an interview that he knew where Olson lived but said Oriadha and Brown were not “blips on my radar.”

“Politics is politics,” Davis said. “People will presume whatever they want to presume.”

After opposition from U-Md. — Davis’s map would move the university from District 3 to District 1 — council member Mel Franklin (D-At Large) introduced an amended version of the map Oct. 19. U-Md. was kept in District 3 in his version, but little else changed.

Hawkins, who supported Davis’s map and then Franklin’s amendment, said he planned to listen to testimony from residents at a public hearing Nov. 16. He said that — “as crazy as it may sound” — he was not personally focused on where people lived but on trying to make sure council districts reflected changing demographics.

In Prince George’s, it is not unusual for council members to propose their own maps separate from that of the nonpartisan redistricting commission — and for those maps to include significant changes — said David Harrington, who served on the commission.

Harrington, a former council member who is president of the Prince George’s County Chamber of Commerce, said he did not know why council members introduced their map. But of the three politicians potentially eliminated by the new design, he said: “I could see why they were upset, to be honest.”

Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) has publicly tried to distance herself from the debate. She answered multiple questions about what callers on WAMU’s “The Politics Hour” described as obvious gerrymandering by saying: “I don’t have any power to affect it. … This is exclusively within the province of the County Council.”

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In Lakeland, a neighborhood established at the turn of the 20th century that for generations was the only part of College Park in which Black residents could live, Middleton said she did not know much about redistricting until Olson, a candidate facing elimination under redistricting, came knocking at her door.

Now, Middleton, who recently retired from a nearly four-decade-long career at the FBI, is trying to figure out how to testify during — or at least watch — the public hearing on Nov. 16.

She doesn’t pay close of attention to politics, she said, but has known Olson, who served on the council from 2006 until 2014, for years. A change in council districts, she worried, might mean a stalling of progress for her community, where officials only recently have started to talk about rectifying generations of loss of wealth for Black families here pushed out by urban renewal.

“I don’t know who the head of District 1 is; I don’t know what their thought process is,” said Middleton, 66, whose family has lived in Lakeland for three generations. “I am hoping, I am praying, that on the 16th it will give us a better understanding.”

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For Olson, whose College Park home of more than 20 years could be moved to District 1, the new map has meant his efforts to win back his old seat have temporarily shifted. Now, he mostly spends his days trying to get residents such as Middleton to turn out on Nov. 16.

“Save our county elections!” reads the bright-green flier he handed to her on a recent day in Lakeland, asserting that six council members are using redistricting to “divide neighborhoods like College Park’s and deny voters the right to elect candidates of their choosing.”

On the new map, Olson’s house sits on a fingerlike peninsula of land carved out of District 3 that now belongs to District 1. His old district is less than five minutes away by foot in most directions.

“If you are a Texas Republican, this is how you wield your power against Democrats,” Olson said in an interview. “Is this the path we want to go down? This is going to rip the county apart.”

Olson and Oriadha said they consider themselves political progressives; Brown described herself as more moderate. Each has a history of vocally challenging the county’s political establishment — particularly on development issues.

Davis and Franklin, who both clashed with Olson when they served together on the council, were reported to have led an effort in 2012 to prevent Olson from getting the votes needed to become council chair.

Davis said his map was designed to put the city of College Park — previously divided between Districts 1 and 3 — into District 1. Because other municipalities fall within single council districts, he said, it seemed fair that College Park should, too.

But leaders in College Park and the representatives of Districts 1 and 3 opposed Davis’s plan.

“You are fixing a problem that doesn’t exist,” council member Thomas E. Dernoga (D-District 1) told Davis during a council meeting.

Davis also said he wanted to redraw District 2′s boundaries to ensure it was majority-Latino. That way, he said, it was more likely that Latino candidates could be elected to represent a population that the most recent census data shows has grown rapidly. District 2 is 49.5 percent Latino and would become 50.8 percent Latino under Davis’s plan. It has been represented by Hispanic council members since 2004.

Dernoga, who is part of the more liberal minority bloc on the council, said he has responded to dozens of emails from people outraged by the process.

Residents in College Park rallied last month, carrying signs that read: “We demand transparency” and “Politicians should not pick their constituents.”

In Lakeland, where the government pushed Black families out of their houses in the 1970s in the name of urban renewal, Robert Thurston said the redistricting effort feels like the latest example of government action being taken without input from the people affected. And it comes as officials are in the early stages of discussing justice for families that lost generations of wealth and history.

When Thurston, who is president of the Lakeland Civic Association, talks to people in the community about the changes, he explains that being placed in a new district could mean starting those discussions anew.

He’s been knocking on doors with Olson and spoke Sunday at a church in Lakeland.

“At best,” he told Middleton after knocking on her door, “it means we have to reeducate people.”