ANNAPOLIS – The complex and controversial process of redrawing the state’s legislative and congressional districts moved behind closed doors after Thursday’s final public meeting before the Governor’s Redistricting Advisory Committee drafts recommendations.
More than 1,000 citizens had their say in 12 public meetings held across the state since late June, e-mails and letters, said Secretary of State and committee chairman John Willis after Wednesday’s meeting in Prince George’s County. The last meeting was Thursday in Rockville.
The committee staff will spend the next several weeks compiling information gathered since the committee’s inception May 31. Third-party plans, those submitted by individuals or groups other than elected officials will be public record, Willis said.
But the committee, charged with drafting an every-10-years redrawing of Maryland’s political boundaries, will deliberate in secret. The panel, appointed by the governor in May, is not covered by Maryland open meetings law because it does not qualify as a “public body,” said Nicki Trella, legal officer for the Office of the Secretary of State.
“If that’s the way the process works then that’s the way it works,” said Raquel Guillory, spokeswoman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening.
There will be a second round of public meetings later this fall at sites around the state, Willis said. Dates and times will be announced later.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, and Speaker Casper Taylor Jr., D-Allegany, both redistricting committee members, predicted cooperation with Glendening, rather than the division that characterized the 1991 redistricting.
“I think that this legislative cycle the governor and I are going to be on the exact same wavelength,” Miller said.
The only deadline for the process is Jan. 9, the first day of the 2002 legislative session, when the governor must present his redistricting plan to the General Assembly, Willis said.
A lot is at stake in redistricting — everything from the political survival of incumbents to the unity of small towns occasionally split down the middle by district lines.
In Maryland, where all the state’s top offices are held by Democrats, the process is not likely to favor Republicans.
At the Prince George’s meeting, state GOP chairman Michael Steele characterized redistricting as a “reverse election” where “representatives choose their voters.” He pushed his single-member legislative district plan that would break 47 legislative districts into 141.
“We’re trying to empower the community,” Steele said.
“Government is best when closest to the people.”
Steele’s plan would carve the state into districts of about 37,000 people and one-third the size of the current three-member districts.
What Maryland has now, Steele said, is an “archaic, good-old-boy network” and an “incumbent insurance program.”
The advantages of his plan, Steele said, are more districts where minority populations would have the advantage, closer ties between delegates and voters and cheaper campaigns.
Delegate Talmadge Branch, D-Baltimore, chairman of the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus, said his group does not support single-member districts and will submit its own plan to the committee.
“I like the cross-section of representation,” Branch said. “I like representing some whites and Hispanics. . . . I see that (carving up districts) as being divisive.”
Committee member Isiah Leggett, Montgomery County council member, asked Steele what the Republicans stand to gain under his plan.
“I’m in the business of electing Republicans,” admitted Steele. “Yes, that’s part of the plan.”
Miller scoffed at the GOP idea.
“The Republican plan is to disempower minority communities,” he said after the meeting, “to neuter the African-American population in Maryland.”
Population is what dictates these districts, Miller said. In situations where it can empower a minority community, he said, the committee will consider adopting a single-member district.
Sometimes remapping districts means sacrificing one of many goals: equalizing representation by population, following natural boundaries and reinforcing the doctrine of “one person, one vote.”
The town of Cheverly is an example.
Calling the town of 6,400 residents a “jewel,” Mayor Larry Beyna asked that Cheverly, a municipality divided by district lines since its incorporation in 1931, finally be united.
“It’s our belief that our ability to garner state grants through the legislative process is diluted because we’re divided into two districts,” Beyna said.
Unity was a theme at the final meeting, too.
Maryland’s congressional delegation is evenly split four and four between Democrats and Republicans, a surprising fact considering the Democrats’ dominance in the state Legislature.
U.S. Rep. Constance Morella, R-Bethesda, tried to preempt any attempt to significantly alter her district at the final public meeting Thursday.
“It is my profound belief that the state must be sensitive to the uniqueness of our county and recognize our desire to remain whole and intact,” said Morella, the only member of Maryland’s congressional delegation to speak at one of the 12 public meetings.
Splitting Montgomery County in two so that Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D- Montgomery, and Delegate Mark K. Shriver, D-Montgomery, would not have to run against each other could jeopardize Morella’s incumbency as well as that of neighboring U.S Rep. Albert Wynn, D-Largo, depending on where the lines are drawn.
The process is far from over. After the governor submits a plan to the General Assembly, the Legislature has 45 days to adopt another plan or the governor’s becomes law.
Any legal challenges could mean another delay. Steele and others said court action is an option.
“We will look closely at the governor’s map,” Steele said. “I’ve heard that some are planning to sue before they see the map.”
Willis seemed prepared for a legal battle. “I don’t know one of these processes that hasn’t had a court challenge.”