By ASHLEY M. LATTA
Capital News Service
As the Maryland General Assembly prepares to approve a Congressional redistricting plan, a number of leaders from both political parties say the current proposal aims to bolster Democratic power by squeezing out Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett and diluting minority voting power.
Some Montgomery County Democrats, several state delegates, the NAACP of Maryland and a number of Republicans are openly opposing the plan put forth by the Governor's Redistricting Advisory Committee.
"The first time I saw this map, I thought it was one of the rejected maps," said Montgomery County Councilmember Marc Elrich. "It begins to look like we had a second objective - a political objective of individuals."
Elrich and others are up in arms over the map's sprawling districts that ignore geographical boundaries.
Republicans have offered several alternatives to the plan.
"It's a map that's designed for partisan advantage," said Delegate Justin Ready, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party. "It certainly does not represent county boundaries or communities of interest."
Gov. Martin O'Malley has called a special legislative session starting Monday to redraw the state's Congressional districts.
Despite stipulations in the Maryland constitution that require state legislative districts be contiguous, compact, and give "due regard" to natural and political boundaries, there are no such rules for Congressional redistricting.
"They are standards that we should aspire to, but there's no overriding authority," said Todd Eberly, assistant professor of political science at St. Mary's College.
The proposed Congressional map would slice away the more conservative part of District 6, represented by Bartlett, R-Frederick, making it marginally more Democratic.
"It's basically a map that carves the state into eight gerrymandered districts, pretty much to target one individual," said Ready, referring to Bartlett.
Lisa Wright, Bartlett's spokeswoman, said the congressman has nothing further to say on the matter, beyond what he expressed in a recent statement.
In the statement, Bartlett did not address how the proposed map would affect his district, nor did he respond to speculation over a possible campaign for his seat. Instead, he focused on the importance of creating a map that accurately reflects the large percentage of minorities, and residents in rural areas.
"Using commonly available tools, a revised map could easily include three majority-minority districts ... as well as districts that respect our rural communities," he said.
The current proposal would divide some communities with long-standing relationships, like Montgomery and Prince George's counties, and combine others with less obvious ties.
Part of Montgomery County, for example, would be sharing District 6 with parts of Frederick, Washington, Allegany and Garrett counties.
"What do those counties have in common?" asked Montgomery Councilmember Craig Rice. "The key focus should be keeping communities together."
The third Congressional district, currently represented by Democrat John Sarbanes, would incorporate Montgomery County in with parts of Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel counties.
"There is absolutely no logic to that," said Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez, D-Montgomery.
Only two of the newly drawn districts would be majority-minority: District 4, represented by Democrat Donna Edwards, and District 7, represented by Democrat Elijah Cummings.
"Maryland's population is over 40 percent minority, with its concentration in Montgomery County, Prince George's County and Baltimore City," Eberly said. "There's no reason why you wouldn't expect to see three, if not four, majority-minority districts."
According to Eberly, when drawing political lines, Republicans generally aim to isolate Democratic-leaning minority voters in the fewest number of districts. Conversely, Democrats aim to spread out minority voters to prevent a Republican majority in conservative districts.
"Regardless of what anyone wants to say, redistricting is a highly political and highly partisan endeavor, Eberly said. "In states where Republicans control the process, they are drawing maps every bit as distorted as the map being drawn in Maryland."
Elbridge James, political director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People of Maryland, said he will encourage the governor to move toward a plan that is more equitable and reasonable, hinting at the possibility of a court challenge.
"The NAACP is hoping that the governor takes under consideration all our requests," James said.
Lawsuits have already been filed in other states, like Texas and Illinois, where plaintiffs claim that proposed redistricting maps violate the 1965 Voting Rights Act and will disenfranchise minority groups.
Yvette Lewis, the Maryland Democratic Party chair, said she believes the governor has done his due diligence to hear concerns over the map and ultimately will ensure the approved redistricting plan is fair.
"One of the things I know is that the governor has had a very open and transparent process," Lewis said. "The commission has listened to the concerns of all the constituents."
O'Malley has not yet released his own proposed map, but it is likely he will do so in advance of the Special Session. On Wednesday, he issued the executive order proclaiming the start of the Special Session on Monday. Maryland must pass a Congressional redistricting plan prior to the start of the 2012 legislative session.
State districts will be redrawn during the regular legislative session that starts Jan. 11