A surging minority population and shrinking number of white conservatives in Washington’s Maryland suburbs could dramatically change how the region is represented in Congress.
Several powerful state Democrats have privately begun to line up in favor of a plan to carve up the region anew, anchoring four House members — or half the state’s congressional delegation — in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, where minorities now make up majorities.
The move, as outlined by sources familiar with the plan, could force a growing number of Hispanics and other reliably Democratic voters in affluent Montgomery into an unfamiliar role. Much as Prince George’s has long been split so that African American voters bolster Democratic candidates’ chances elsewhere, Montgomery would be divided to help the party conquer the state’s longtime Republican-held western flank.
Communities along the Interstate 270 corridor, such as Gaithersburg and Rockville, would be lumped into the far-flung 6th Congressional District, which stretches roughly 200 miles to the West Virginia border.
But even before the plan gets off the ground, some in Montgomery and Prince George’s are pushing back, saying the congressional redistricting that state lawmakers will vote on this fall should first correct local and racial boundaries compromised 10 years ago when lawmakers last sliced up the two counties in an effort to replace a Republican member of Congress with a Democratic one in the 8th District.
Critics charge that redistricting after the 2000 Census left Maryland’s 4th Congressional District, which cuts through more suburbs surrounding the nation’s capital than any other, with a split personality.
Designed after the 1990 Census to be the nation’s first majority-black suburban House district, the 4th has since morphed into something else, they say. Now represented by Rep. Donna F. Edwards, the district connects inner-Beltway black communities in southern and central Prince George’s with farmland near Frederick, and it bisects the region’s most populous Hispanic community along the way.
“It really has been gerrymandered too much,” said Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez (D-Montgomery).
“You cannot make the case that the extreme ends of Montgomery should be connected all the way down to where she lives. They are really totally different communities,” Gutierrez said, referring to Edwards’s home in southern Prince George’s, about 55 miles from the district’s northern reach.
Of any further splitting of Montgomery, Gutierrez, who is especially worried about fair representation for Hispanics, said: “I’m afraid it won’t be best for minorities, but it will be best for the party. They’re using Montgomery to correct problems elsewhere, and I think there needs to be a different analysis of what’s best for constituents.”
Ahead of the only planned public hearing on redistricting in Montgomery, scheduled for Wednesday night in Rockville, Gutierrez is one of a few elected officials from the county who have publicly criticized the proposal to split it.
It’s a sharp contrast to Prince George’s, where hundreds turned out last month for a boisterous redistricting meeting and a grass-roots group even proposed a plan to reduce the county’s number of representatives so Prince George’s lawmakers could more purely represent the interests of the county’s black majority .
In Montgomery, most high-ranking officials and public-interest groups have remained mum. In interviews, some have expressed optimism that splitting the county could have the most beneficial outcome.
That’s because in Montgomery, where nearly three out of four registered voters affiliated with a major party are Democrats, many are oriented toward national politics and have taken the broad view that the greatest good could come from the party gaining an additional seat to help Democrats retake the House next year.
And some county officials take the parochial view that the more members of Congress there are beholden to the interests of Montgomery, the better.
“The more the merrier,” said Steve Silverman, director of Montgomery’s Department of Economic Development. “If the 6th comes down along 270, that will be an advantage for us, because the district will be a corridor rich with federal agencies.”
State lawmakers who might otherwise advocate keeping their communities together also have a personal incentive to support splitting them.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, whose Montgomery district was drawn to benefit a Democrat after the last census, is now ensconced in the party’s House leadership. And Edwards’s district is still oriented most favorably toward candidates from Prince George’s. That means drawing a third district into the county may be the only way for another ambitious, young Montgomery Democrat to make a successful run for Congress any time soon.
Upending Western Maryland’s 10-term GOP Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett may also be the simplest option for Democrats. Targeting freshman Republican Rep. Andy Harris on the Eastern Shore would be more complicated, given that most neighboring districts to the north around Baltimore lost population, according to the census, and also need to expand somewhere to pick up more Democratic votes.
This year, Republicans, who for decades have criticized Maryland’s Democratic majority for what they say is overzealous gerrymandering, have proposed their own map, which would draw districts more compactly, benefitting Bartlett in the 6th and Harris in the 1st.
Democratic members of Maryland’s congressional delegation are still considering both the plan to target Bartlett and a still-evolving one to go after Harris. They have not made a final decision, said sources close to the talks, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the negotiations.
The delegation’s recommendation is expected to form the backbone of the map Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) asks the state’s Democratic-controlled General Assembly to endorse in October.
Radamase Cabrera, a longtime community activist in southern Prince George’s, said the delegation would be wise to heed the lessons of the tortured 4th Congressional District before they get too creative this year.
“One person cannot effectively represent both Montgomery and Prince George’s County,” he said. “When communities are split, neither is represented adequately, and with these two, there’s more, there’s tension because they compete for federal funds, and will only do so more in coming years.”
Competing interests in Edwards’s district has led to some awkward moments since she was sworn in after a special election in 2008 as the first black woman to represent Maryland in Congress.
She stayed neutral early on, arguing for a level playing field as Montgomery and Prince George’s fought for a new long-term contract to host the headquarters of the Department of Health and Human Services and its 3,000 federal jobs.
But recently she came out in favor of Washington Adventist Hospital’s proposed move from Takoma Park, drawing the ire of some in Prince George’s. They say the hospital is critical to the care of the county’s poor Hispanic residents, many of them living in Langley Park, which sits just across the county line from Washington Adventist.
The cross-county split, however, has worked out financially for Edwards. Federal campaign contribution records show that she has raked in nearly twice as much money in individual contributions from residents in Montgomery as in Prince George’s, although she has received the most from D.C. residents.
Some activists hope that if the 6th District is pushed down into Montgomery, Edwards’s district will be reconfigured to take in more of Prince George’s, bringing it closer to its boundaries in 1990, when it first became a majority-black district.
Edwards declined to comment. She and other members of Maryland’s congressional delegation have made an agreement not to comment on the state’s redistricting process until the delegation settles on its recommended map, the sources said. They said the negotiations are being orchestrated by House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, who represents the state’s 5th Congressional District.
Staff writer T.W. Farnam contributed to this report.