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tim rowlands - 9/30/01

November 09, 2001

Legislative redistricting, or the trouble with Alex



Local lawmakers sensibly believe that if you live in Washington County you ought to be represented in Annapolis by someone who lives in Washington County as well.

Unfortunately, it's not going to work out that way when the General Assembly redraws district lines this coming session. In fact, for the first time ever, the Washington County delegation may end up with more members living outside county lines than inside - by as much as 6-4.

The fate of any number of Washington County initiatives, from setting the pay for Washington County's local office holders, to funding for Washington County projects, will rest in the hands of men and women who don't live here.

This is not to suggest that out-of-county lawmakers have or will be unfair to us. But what if Washington County is competing with Frederick for the same money to improve its historic theater or its baseball stadium? The "Washington County delegation" - Washington County's in name only - could quite conceivably have more votes for Frederick's projects than for ours.

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Unlike 10 years ago, when the wily Del. Doc McClellan of Frederick effectively filched a seat that population numbers said we deserved, in 2002 we won't have much of a choice.

To make a full senatorial district beginning at Maryland's westernmost boundary, Garrett and Allegheny counties will have to borrow about 8,000 residents of Washington County. Early talk that the district line would be drawn in Hancock seems conservative. Most likely the Garrett/Allegany district will grow geographically to include Clear Spring and Huyett's Crossroads.

This is the district currently represented by Sen. John Hafer and House Speaker Cas Taylor. Were there any way around it, Taylor, a Democrat, would likely prefer to remain within the confines of the Democratic Allegany County and avoid the Republican bastions of western Washington County. But there clearly isn't. Add Hafer and Taylor to the county's delegation, and subtract up to 8,000 people from Washington County's base representative population.

Without those 8,000 people, Washington County falls way short of earning a fourth delegate. Instead, about 10,000 residents of eastern Washington County will be left over from our own full senatorial district, and they will go to Frederick.

The only remaining intrigue is who those 10,000 will be, northern or southern Washington Countians. The Frederick-majority district now includes the our northern communities all the way down to the outskirts of Hagerstown.

That could change; Maugansville and Fountainhead may fall into Washington County districts. (If that happens, a point of intrigue will be to see who from the politically active communities north of Hagerstown may be tempted to run for state office - people who in the past may have been dissuaded from running because the district was heavily weighted with Frederick County voters.)

That would still leave Smithsburg, Ringgold, Cascade and perhaps Leitersburg to Frederick. Those communities are heavily Republican, and gave a big boost to Sen. Alex Mooney's winning Senatorial campaign in 1998.

State leaders could live without Mooney, to say the least, and they have the power to make his re-election plans more difficult by giving the northern Republican communities back to Washington County and putting the somewhat more Democratic South-County precincts into Mooney's district.

South-County residents with their noses to the political grindstone aren't universally thrilled with this gambit, particularly should the strategy fail and Mooney be re-elected. In Annapolis, the hysterically self-aggrandizing Mooney has anti-clout. Meaning, not only is he ineffective, but anything he supports, state leaders go out of their way to oppose.

He was recently booted off the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, because the conservative committee chairman Walter Baker was fed up with Mooney's grandstanding. The most generous compliment I've heard of which Mooney is deserving - "I don't know if I'd throw him out; he's goofy, but he's interesting" - is true enough in the sense that what happened at Chernobyl was "interesting."

But nuclear meltdowns are best watched at a distance and plenty of South County residents don't want the up-close and personal experience of being represented, poorly, by Mooney.

Obviously, the state's top Democrats will draw the lines to make Mooney as uncomfortable as possible. That effort will redouble if a top Democrat steps forward to challenge him. The name most mentioned as a credible Mooney challenger is Del. Sue Hecht.

Hecht has long since passed the exasperation stage with the young senator. Now, when his name is mentioned about all she does is roll her eyes. More than for her own promotion, she might be tempted to try to unseat Mooney because he is poison to Frederick County initiatives.

If Hecht runs, South County will almost certainly go to Frederick.

Even so, the Mooney blight may be on the landscape for some time to come. History shows that almost anyone can be elected if he has enough money, and Mooney has raised an unconscionable amount of cash for a Senate race - approaching a quarter of a million dollars, no small part of it coming from out-of-state, red-meat conservatives from as far away as the West Coast.

Hecht could expect a sizable sum herself from the state party, and the race would be a slugfest that would not be pretty - except for newspaper columnists, in which case it would be very pretty indeed.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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