Prince George’s County residents called for the state’s redistricting commission to boost black voter representation and stop carving up the county to help Democrats in neighboring jurisdictions — even if it endangers prominent incumbents in Congress and the state legislature.
More than 170 people attended a Monday hearing at Prince George’s Community College in Largo to urge the state advisory group to give more power to the growing minority population that now makes up 85 percent of the county. Eighty-seven percent of county voters were Democrats as of the last election.
“Your challenge is to recognize and allow for change,” said Karren Jo Pope-Onwukwe, a Hyattsville resident who called for districts that boost minority voter strength in the county.
For two hours, many in the audience called for the five-member commission to arrange state and congressional legislative maps so the county of 860,000 will include black majorities in every district. Attendees also spoke against a state practice of bending and looping legislative borders that they said divides black voters and boosts the chances for incumbents in other counties to win seats.
“The African-American community should be able to determine the outcome of more legislative districts,” said Del. Aisha Braveboy (D-Dist. 25) of Mitchellville.
As one of the most affluent black suburbs in the United States, Prince George’s County has long called for greater minority representation in the General Assembly. While the county has eight state senators and 23 delegates, residents said they believe more of the county’s representatives should reflect the large minority population. Half of the county’s senators are white, as are seven of its 23 delegates.
Residents at the hearing focused on Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach, who is white and has been in the legislature for 40 years. Miller is a former Prince George’s resident who now lives in Calvert County; however, his district includes the southern half of Prince George’s. Miller is a member of the redistricting commission, which will present its recommendations on how to draw legislative lines to Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) this fall.
“This is not about the people in office. Incumbents come and incumbents go,” said Terry Speigner, a Prince George’s County Democratic Central Committee member. “Senator Miller, I know you lived in Prince George’s at some point in time. I think eventually someone in Prince George’s will represent the 27th district.”
After the meeting, Miller said he did not think the new districts would affect his political prospects.
“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” he said when asked if making boundary changes would dim his re-election chances.
Similar arguments went to state court in 2002, when former County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) sued former Gov. Parris Glendening (D), alleging Glendening drafted boundaries to aid white incumbents at the expense of minority residents. That case led the courts to add an eighth Senate district to the county to boost minority representation.
State leaders will be pressed hard to justify their boundary decisions or face a court challenge, warned Trevor Otts, a real estate agent from Fort Washington.
“We will require a detailed explanation, not just a map,” Otts told the commission.
Residents suggested getting rid of districts that dip into Prince George’s County to take advantage of its Democratic votes, even if that means fewer congressional members, senators and delegates.
“The eighth does nothing more than use us to put another Democrat in Congress,” Speigner told the group, referring to the district of U.S. Rep. Christopher Van Hollen (D) of Kensington, whose district of 243,560 includes about 20,145 Prince Georgians. “We need to focus on our home.”
Incumbents warned that reducing the total number of lawmakers could affect the county’s ability to secure millions in aid for Prince George’s.
“Our diversity is part of our strength,” said Del. Melony G. Griffith (D-Dist. 25) of Upper Marlboro. “But our numbers are part of it as well.”
Commission chairwoman Jeanne D. Hitchcock, a member of O’Malley’s staff, said the hearing drew an abnormally high crowd for the group, which began holding hearings Saturday. There are nine more hearings scheduled across the state through Sept. 10.
The commission will make recommendations to O’Malley soon after. The General Assembly will weigh O’Malley’s map for the state’s eight congressional districts at a special session Oct. 17 and will decide state boundaries during the regular session that begins in January.
Miller predicted that the latest process will likely draw protests.
“There’s going to be some crying and gnashing of teeth,” Miller told supporters after the meeting.