A highly partisan and racially charged plan to redraw Maryland’s congressional districts advanced in the state Senate late Monday, despite protests from good-government groups and an eleventh-hour attempt to derail it by one of the state’s two African American members of Congress.

The plan’s early momentum suggested that Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and Democratic legislative leaders could fend off challenges from Republicans and from within their own ranks to meet a well-publicized goal of pushing the measure through a special session of the General Assembly and into law by week’s end.

Barring surprises to alter that trajectory, the plan could position Maryland as a weapon next year in the Democrats’ attempts to retake control of the U.S. House of Representatives. The plan would probably upend Maryland’s senior Republican House member, Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, by forcing the 85-year-old Western Marylander to win reelection in a district that would gain nearly 350,000 mostly liberal voters in Montgomery County.

O’Malley on Monday downplayed several days of vocal criticism from Rep. Donna F. Edwards (D), who would no longer represent the county and who has charged that the proposal would dilute the voting power of blacks, Hispanics and Asians in the majority-minority county. The measure is expected to pass the Senate on Tuesday and go to the House of Delegates.

‘Narrow criticism’

The governor tried to turn attention to another idea — a plan to raise the state’s gas tax and potentially other revenue to help create jobs. When asked about comments by Edwards, he called his plan “fair and balanced” and cast complaints by Edwards and a handful of other African American and Hispanic lawmakers in Montgomery as “a very, very narrow criticism, not held by the vast majority.”

Edwards attempted to undermine support for O’Malley’s plan on Monday by proposing an alternative map that she said would maintain her current percentage of African American voters and allow her to continue to represent eastern Montgomery.

The plan was met with immediate criticism, however, with several state lawmakers saying they viewed it as little more than a scheme to insulate Edwards from a potential primary challenge from other politicians in Prince George’s County, where her district would be heavily concentrated in the future.

“How is this any better?” asked state Sen. Victor Ramirez (D-Prince George’s), who questioned why Edwards’s plan only marginally changed the percentage of Hispanic voters in each district, doing little to let the growing voter block in the Washington region attempt to elect a federal lawmaker.

Democratic lawmakers also rebuffed harsh criticism from the League of Women Voters of Maryland, Common Cause and a handful of residents who testified before a joint committee conducting the final public hearing on the plan. Most said they were appalled at the blatant partisanship that appeared to be driving the plan. Others said that devising districts to tilt the state’s current 6 to 2 majority for Democrats to 7 and 1 would further polarize an already paralyzed Congress.

“Maryland’s governor and legislators should assess the responsibility for their role in creating a dysfunctional Congress,” said league President Nancy Soreng. “Just because you can create such boundaries does not mean you should.”

Soreng seemed taken aback when, after her comments, Del. Maggie McIntosh (D-Baltimore) challenged her, saying Maryland had done a better job creating competitive districts than other states.

To make Bartlett’s district competitive, incumbent Democrats would each lose a little of their Democratic majorities, but each district would remain comfortably blue, with at least 62 percent voting Democratic in the most recent presidential election.

Soreng said she disagreed with McIntosh and considers Maryland’s map lacking.

Isiah Leggett (D) and Rushern L. Baker (D), the county executives of Montgomery and Prince George’s, respectively, testified that they strongly support the governor’s plan.

Leggett, the county’s first African American executive, questioned Edwards’s logic that the map would prevent county voters from electing a minority candidate.

“I got elected — countywide,” Leggett said.

Legal action

Minority groups, including the Fannie Lou Hammer Political Action Committee, which has formed an unlikely alliance with the state’s GOP, left little doubt that they would sue to stop the governor’s plan if it passes in the legislature.

Carletta Fellows, a PAC spokeswoman, testified that anything less than a map that creates three majority-minority districts would prompt the group to challenge the state in federal court as well as file a grievance with the Justice Department, charging violations of federal voting rights legislation designed to protect minorities.

Republicans also piled on criticism. Nancy Jacobs, the Senate minority leader, said it was clear that O’Malley and the state’s Democratic leaders were aiming not only to unseat Bartlett but give a leg up to a favored lawmaker, Senate Majority Leader Robert Garagiola (D-Montgomery). He has said he would be interested in running against Bartlett in a redrawn district.

“The people of Maryland are not dumb; they see what is happening,” Jacobs added.

O’Malley’s pronouncement on the gas tax, however, nearly rivaled developments on the redistricting plan. O’Malley said the General Assembly must begin considering a 15-cent increase to Maryland’s gas tax to fund road construction, public transit and other transportation projects. Maryland ranks 27th nationally with a 23.5-cent gas tax, the same as the District’s and nearly four cents more than in Virginia.

The governor also suggested that he would seek an expansion to the state’s capital budget to fund school construction and other infrastructure when the General Assembly convenes in January.