Josh Kurtz: The Redistricting Conundrum

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Gov. Larry Hogan (R) likes to fulfill his promises. But sometimes the level of fulfillment isn’t all that great for the rest of us.

Take, for example, the reduction of highway tolls around the state. Sure, it’s nice to spend 4 bucks to cross the Bay Bridge instead of 6. But is that 33 percent reduction really driving more traffic to the Eastern Shore and spurring the local economy?

Isn’t Hogan just robbing the Transportation Trust Fund to check off a campaign pledge? Is anyone now crossing the Bay Bridge who wasn’t doing so before? Are Easton, Chestertown and Ocean City seeing more visitors because the toll is $4 and not $6? This seems like a cheap and short-sighted gimmick more than an economic development tool.

Hogan’s most recent victory dance came earlier this month, when he created a commission to study redistricting reform. “Through the work of this commission, my administration’s goal is to reform this process and put Maryland’s redistricting process on a new path toward transparency, fair representation, and election integrity,” he said.

Hogan campaigned on a pledge to reform how congressional and legislative boundaries are drawn in Maryland – a noble goal given the way the process has been abused through the years. Reform groups are understandably applauding. Maryland Democrats, who have been the primary beneficiaries of gerrymandering for decades, are predictably skeptical.

Hogan’s gambit has presented Democrats with an unpleasant dilemma. But maybe, just maybe, it’s an opportunity they should seize.

It’s easy to question Hogan’s motives here. No doubt, Hogan’s zeal for reform would be a whole lot less if the tables were turned in Maryland – if Republicans, rather than Democrats, had a 7-1 advantage in the state’s congressional delegation and big majorities in Annapolis.

Hogan’s push for reform, it must be noted, coincides with a $125 million national effort by the Republican State Leadership Committee and the conservative State Government Leadership Foundation to dominate the redistricting process even more after the 2020 Census (see for more details).

And that process, when you look at the national picture, is already heavily skewed toward the GOP, as Maryland Democrats balefully protest.

You expect, say, Texas, which last voted for a Democratic presidential nominee in 1976 and last elected a Democrat to a statewide office in 1994, to screw with the Democrats during congressional mapmaking. The GOP currently has a 25-11 advantage in the Lone Star State’s U.S. House delegation, and the congressional map has been the object of major – and partially successful – federal lawsuits in the last two redistricting cycles.

More troubling to Democrats is the advantage in congressional seats the Republicans have built in states President Obama carried twice – Pennsylvania, where the GOP edge is 13-5; Ohio, where it’s 12-4; Virginia, where it’s 8-3; Michigan, where it’s 9-5, and Florida, where it’s 17-10.

The Sunshine State’s congressional map is being redrawn as we speak by a recalcitrant Republican state legislature, which was ordered to do so last month by the Florida Supreme Court.

"We can only hope that Florida lawmakers will pay heed to the highest court in the land and accept that we are a government of the people, for the people and by the people -- not a government carved out to satisfy party politics and big money," League of Women Voters of Florida President Pamela Goodman said at the time.

In North Carolina, which Obama won narrowly in 2008 and lost narrowly in 2012, which is expected to be a swing state again in the 2016 White House election and will host a nasty, competitive gubernatorial race next year, the Republicans hold an astounding 10-3 advantage in House seats (two of the three Democratic districts are majority-black).

Hogan, as he pushes to reform Maryland redistricting, ought to more forcefully acknowledge the disparities in these other states than he previously has and fully embrace those Maryland politicians who are advocating for nationwide redistricting reform. Doing so would, at the very least, make his crusade to end gerrymandering here seem like less of a partisan enterprise.

Hogan has already shown an amazing talent for operating under the veneer of bipartisanship, finding Democrats to appoint to high-level jobs who don’t really conform to the modern notion of what a Democrat is – or who were last relevant in party politics a long time ago. So to act as co-chairman of the redistricting commission, Hogan has named Alexander Williams, a retired federal judge who was making a name for himself in the Prince George’s County courthouse in the late 1970’s, around the same time Hogan’s father was county executive – and who last competed in a partisan political election back in 1992, when he lost the 4th congressional district Democratic primary.

So it’s easy for the Democrats to question Hogan’s motives as he tees up redistricting reform. It’s also fair to say that they’ll have a lot of sway over the fate of any proposal Hogan advances, given their advantages in the state House and Senate.

But you know what? Democrats ought to go along this time – because it’s the right thing to do. What a concept. And they’ll have a better chance of shaping whatever redistricting proposal emerges – or killing it, if it’s not credible – if they participate in Hogan’s commission.

Even the most partisan Maryland Democrat can’t help but look at the state’s congressional map and feel a little embarrassed – about the dreadful 3rd district, designed to allow Rep. John Sarbanes (D) to touch lots of fertile Democratic territory; about the way districts radiate out of Baltimore even though the city is losing population relative to the rest of the state; about the way Anne Arundel County has been carved up and has no Republican representation (ironically, the 6th district, which the Democrats redrew to pick up one more seat in 2012, is not the state’s most egregious – and has historical antecedents).

Democrats are so used to getting their way in Maryland that they’re reflexively opposed to anything that diminishes their power even in a little, even if it’s in the name of justice and democracy. But here is an opportunity for them to embrace reform – and share in the glow of any results that make our elections fairer and more competitive.

What are the practical political consequences? Democrats might lose a congressional seat or two if the Maryland maps were drawn with fewer partisan considerations. But in the national context, so what? It’s not as if the Democrats are on the cusp of flipping the House of Representatives anytime soon.

And at the legislative level, how many Democratic seats would redistricting reform imperil? A handful, at most?

Suppose more incumbents actually had to fight for their seats every few years: It would make them better public servants – and more accountable to their constituents. Would that be so terrible? Wouldn’t more competitive elections boost voter turnout and strengthen our democracy? Isn’t that the point?

Maryland Democrats should by all means continue advocating for national redistricting reform. Hogan should, too.

But the Democrats should resist the idea of resisting Hogan’s commission. The U.S. Constitution gives the states the job of drawing their political boundaries. Let Maryland be the leader in the fight for political reform for once.

For the Democrats, it will feel a lot better than they think.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at . Follow him on Twitter @joshkurtznews


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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.