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Art Callaham: Gerrymandering, Part II

January 28, 2012|By ART CALLAHAM

Before Christmas, I wrote a column concerning the history of gerrymandering and promised a little more about the subject.  Gerrymandering, as you may recall, has become a political tool to make or sometimes break control of a geographic area by grouping voters along partisan lines. Sometimes, the resulting geographic lines are actually humorous.

In Chicago, the boundary lines in one congressional district look like cold-weather ear covers, hence the name “the earmuff district” formed to elect a minority candidate. North Carolina might be the bellwether state for forming several districts that resemble snakes and snails, and maybe even a puppy dog’s tail. Sounds like what my mother said that “good old boys” were made of (actually, Mom said “boys;” but good old boys are just older boys with bigger toys like gerrymandering to play games of political one-upmanship).

Like North Carolina and California, Texas — another of the big boys — used gerrymandering to change the political climate of the state on both the national and state levels. I’m not grousing when I opine this information about gerrymandering; both Republicans and Democrats are good at implementing political change with gerrymandering being one of the prevalent tools. I’ll bet that any of the fringe parties would love to have the power to ensure their agenda was the popular agenda among the majority of voters in a district for a 10-year period.

As I wrote before, it’s good to be king (or governor); and that brings me to Maryland’s 6th Congressional District. First, as a reminder, I am a lifelong conservative Republican, so you might read some “small” jabs at my many friends who are Democrats. However, in my best Richard Nixon voice, “let me make one thing perfectly clear,” if the Republicans were in charge in Maryland today, I’d be supporting the same type of gerrymandering efforts that the Democrats are using.  All’s fair in love, war and politics.

So, what’s happening? First, a little state history. In 2001-02, when we underwent our last redistricting, I suppose the Democrats figured a 6 to 2 split (Democrats vs. Republicans) of Maryland’s eight congressional seats was better than the even split that had been the norm over the previous few elections. So, how do you achieve that favorable split?

First, in 2002, Robert Ehrlich, a sitting Republican congressman, was running for governor. So, it was a perfect time to capture Ehrlich’s old district for the Democrats. In 2001 and 2002, recall that Democrats held a huge majority in both houses of the Maryland General Assembly and that Parris Glendening, a Democrat, was governor.

Using gerrymandering efforts, the Democrats loaded up the new 6th Congressional District, the seat occupied by Roscoe Bartlett, then a four-term Republican congressman, with more Republican voters. Maryland’s traditional “western district” suddenly became Maryland’s “northern district” with the new 6th District lines stretching from the West Virginia border east along the Mason-Dixon Line to include the northern parts of Baltimore and Harford counties (strong Republican territory). Ehrlich’s old district, denuded of some Republicans, became cannon fodder for Dutch Ruppersberger, a Baltimore County executive and a Democrat, to sweep to power.

All that it cost the Democrats was letting Bartlett start to win re-election by a margin of 70 percent to 30 percent instead of his traditional 55 percent to 45 percent. The payoff was conversion of one Republican seat to Democratic control. Similar gerrymandering efforts with similar results for Democrats were achieved around Maryland’s 8th Congressional District, where a Democrat also won. 

Fast forward to today, with an apparently vulnerable Democratic president leading the party in a very unpopular Congress. A 7 to 1 split versus a 6 to 2 split in Maryland congressional seats helps the “on the ropes” Democratic Party nationally. Many believe that this election will be another Democratic congressional seat bloodletting, so every single seat counts.

Enter the gerrymandering masters in Maryland’s 6th, take out a few Republicans and intersperse them in solid Democrat-controlled districts, add in a healthy amount of Montgomery County Democrats and, voila, Bartlett stands a reasonable chance of being defeated.

I applaud the Democrats and their masterful use of gerrymandering and, as I said earlier, if we Republicans were the majority party, we’d be doing the same things. Sadly, however, most Marylanders, and Americans in general, don’t recognize the political power in redistricting. 


Art Callaham is a community activist and president of the Washington County Free Library Board of Trustees.

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