ANNAPOLIS — As legislators prepare to address the shape of political districts, they are hearing a common refrain from the few citizens who populate public hearings on the topic: Don’t divide communities.
Opponents of the current congressional map say the districts snake around the state in shapes even a salamander couldn’t fit into, grouping unlikely communities under the same representative. The committee tasked with making redistricting recommendations also is hearing the court-drawn state legislative districts disenfranchise communities by drawing boundaries down the middle of cul-de-sacs and across county lines.
“What we’ve done with our maps is we’ve made Maryland into the Balkans,” said William H. Campbell, a Howard County resident who spoke at the redistricting hearing Tuesday evening in Columbia. “We have Croats and Serbs and Bosnians and Slovenians, and because of that I think the politicians feel they have carte blanche to do and say as they please.”
Campbell, a Republican who ran for state comptroller in 2010, told members of the Governor’s Redistricting Advisory Committee the people in his Columbia neighborhood do not have the same needs as Baltimore city residents and shouldn’t be represented by the same congressional leaders.
The committee, which includes the heavily influential Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Dist. 30) of Annapolis will make redistricting recommendations to the governor. The legislature is expected to take up the governor’s subsequent plan for the congressional maps in a special session scheduled for October.
Lawmakers will tackle legislative districts during the regular General Assembly session, which begins in January.
“When you’re dispersed among so many different groups, they all have needs,” Campbell said. “They want rec facilities or they want summer jobs for their kids, and this cacophony of voices is not united, so the politicians can pick and choose what they want.”
Such a diverse constituent base can force lawmakers to have to choose among the people they represent, creating political gridlock, he said.
In Frederick County, Republicans are trying to mitigate the cross-county splits seen in state legislative Districts 3 and 4 by submitting their own map. Both Senate seats are represented by legislators from that county, but their constituencies stretch into Carroll and Washington counties.
“We just tried to make it fairer. We brought more Democrats into District 4 so it was more competitive,” said Del. Kathryn L. Afzali (R-Dist. 4A) of Middletown. “The last thing we wanted was to go to court. I don’t think it’s fair to the citizens. We want it to be fair and equitable.”
Afzali, who spearheaded the effort to create a Frederick County Republican redistricting map, said she was dismayed by comments from Busch asserting he and other Democrats would work to make the typically Republican county “cobalt blue” in the legislature.
But she also acknowledged the power to draw legislative lines never lies with the minority party.
“We’ve been laughed at. I just don’t mean Frederick County,” Afzali said. “I mean Republicans in general have been laughed at by the majority party as if to say, ‘As if you have any say in the matter.’ We were trying to look beyond politics and toward citizens.”
Independent groups, such as the League of Women Voters of Maryland, also argue partisanship hurts the redistricting process. At the public hearings, they have suggested sitting elected officials be removed from the redistricting recommendations committee.
Stretching lawmakers’ boundaries across jurisdictional lines is unavoidable in Maryland, because districts must be relatively even in population, and some dense residential areas brush up against more rural communities.
Not all insiders, however, are opposed to dividing districts across counties and communities.
According to Sushant Sidh, an architect of the redistricting plan authored under Gov. Parris N. Glendening, forcing lawmakers to work to please constituents outside of their home counties can be a positive for the state.
“Legislators have a broader view of the state rather than trying to appeal to one area or one jurisdiction,” said Sidh, who now works for the Capital Strategies lobbying firm.
Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer (D-Dist. 12) of Columbia, who never has held an elected seat that didn’t split jurisdictions, said the challenge for legislators is juggling the needs of different areas and their respective forms of government in the General Assembly.
“The one problem you have is particularly with the county you don’t live in feels that maybe you’re not theirs, or you have more interest in the other county, or whatever,” Kasemeyer said. “I think that takes time to overcome that feeling.”
Representing bordering counties can be difficult when political ideologies are divided among the people he represents in west Columbia and Catonsville, Kasemeyer said.
“Part of my Howard County district is probably more liberal on the political spectrum than the Baltimore County side,” he said. “But you do what you feel is the right thing to do for you, for the state and hope that in other areas where you provide assistance, help and involvement people will understand on that issue you differ.”
For Sen. Allan H. Kittleman (R-Dist. 9) of West Friendship, who speaks for the western end of Howard County and parts of Carroll County, splitting his district is manageable, but he takes issue with the way many expect the 6th Congressional District to be rearranged.
“[Citizens] want to hear that we’re doing it because it’s the best way to do it,” Kittleman said. “They don’t want to hear that we want to get one more congressional Democrat.”
Lawmakers are rumored to be planning to bring the 6th District, which encompasses Western Maryland and northern portions of the counties that border Pennsylvania, into Montgomery County to make it more competitive for a Democrat.
“You’re going to have a hard time telling me what they have in common with Deep Creek Lake and with Cumberland or Hancock, Hagerstown,” Kittleman said.