Voters turn off in Third District

Friday, July 21, 2006

Who can blame voters for feeling alienated from Congress? Political insiders have rigged the election apparatus to ensure their party’s dominance. They’ve turned each state into a giant jigsaw puzzle.

Most folks used to know the name of their congressman. They even had a fair idea who represented them in the General Assembly.

Not any longer. Errant Supreme Court rulings from the conservative majority now allow politicians to draw their legislative districts without any regard for what’s best for their communities. It’s gerrymandering run amok.

The state constitution says Maryland’s congressional districts shall consist of ‘‘adjoining territory, be compact in form, and of substantially equal population.” The districts also have to give ‘‘due regard ... to natural boundaries and the boundaries of political subdivisions.”

Maryland’s mandates followed earlier Supreme Court edicts laying out common-sense rules for redrawing congressional maps each decade. Neighborhoods should be kept intact. If there’s a ‘‘community of interest” in an area that ‘‘community” should be not be split apart. Natural boundaries or county boundaries should serve as dividing lines.

Then the Reagan-Bush-Bush conservatives on the court started rewriting the ground rules. They long ago negated Maryland’s redistricting guidelines. Out went the need for compact, contiguous districts.

The conservative court removed itself as a redistricting referee. Its message to politicians in power: ‘‘Do whatever you want.” The justices reaffirmed those instructions in a Texas case this summer.

In Maryland, the result has been wholesale re-jiggering of boundaries to help ‘‘ins” stay in. But it leaves voters baffled or disinterested.

There’s no better example than Maryland’s Third Congressional District, now represented by Ben Cardin, who is running for the U.S. Senate. The scramble to replace Cardin should be a spotlight event. After all, turnover is rare in our congressional delegation. The state’s best and brightest politicians should be duking it out.

Yet there are no heavyweights in the race. Nor are voters paying much attention. The answer lies in the Third District’s ridiculous configuration. To quote Gertrude Stein: ‘‘There is no ‘there’ there.”

Splotches and slices of Baltimore city and Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel counties are loosely appended together. Communities that are worlds apart are joined. Working class neighborhoods in East and South Baltimore and Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties are lumped into the district with trendy Canton, tony Towson and arriviste Annapolis.

The district owes its snake-like configuration to the machinations of Gov. Parris Glendening, who connived to make campaigning difficult for Cardin because he had considered running against Glendening in 1998.

The grotesqueness of the Third District impacted most of Maryland’s other districts, too. They ended up almost as badly gerrymandered.

As a result, three different congressmen represent different slivers of Northeast Baltimore; three different precincts of row houses along The Alameda are split three ways. A tiny, historic neighborhood near the Inner Harbor called Otterbein is divided among two congressmen. Voters in House Speaker Mike Busch’s Annapolis area legislative district have three different congressmen.

No wonder the Third District campaign is lackluster. Only one of the 19 candidates holds office, state Sen. Paula Hollinger. She’s not the best-known candidate, though. That honor goes to a first-time contender whose last name could be enough to win — John P. Sarbanes. He’s a Baltimore lawyer and son of the state’s retiring U.S. Senator.

While other candidates may have trouble connecting with voters in such a disjointed district, the Sarbanes name could be magic.

J.P. Sarbanes has the most money by far in this election, thanks to his father’s contacts. That could make him one of the few candidates buying TV time.

Former Baltimore health commissioner Peter Beilenson has been tapping his own father’s contributor list. His dad, Anthony, served in Congress from California. Beilenson has the second-best-known name in the race.

Hollinger, though, won a key endorsement from the Maryland State Teachers Association. The teachers union is a potent force in Anne Arundel County. Hollinger also has the largest voter base in her old Baltimore County senate district.

Candidates are having trouble reaching voters. Few forums draw large crowds. You can’t advertise effectively in such a far-flung and disparate district. Going door-to-door requires a detailed grid map to identify which block — or house — is worth a ring.

Candidate Kevin O’Keeffe, who formerly lobbied in the State House for Anne Arundel County and Baltimore city, has been knocking on doors for six months. The Third District’s weirdness makes it frustrating. People, he says, are turned off. ‘‘There is no interest in this race.”

What is on people’s minds? ‘‘They’re talking about trees and rats and parking,” O’Keeffe says — local issues far removed from Capitol Hill.

O’Keeffe says he can’t get a feel for issues people care about. The Third District’s dissonance is proving a turnoff to voters.

O’Keeffe predicts the winner will be ‘‘one of the least defined public figures” in Maryland history. Voters will be electing someone to the U.S. Congress, but there’s no pride or interest in this important participatory exercise.

They can thank the Supreme Court, Parris Glendening and the state legislators who rubber-stamped Maryland’s tortuous redistricting maps. It’s a shameful situation that makes it difficult for Americans to feel good about the democratic process.

Barry Rascovar is a communications consultant. His Wednesday morning commentaries can be heard on WYPR, 88.1 FM.