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Politics Makes Strange Bedfellows, Even Stranger Congressional Boundaries

Maryland's 3rd Congressional District: Classic gerrymandering? Expanded map

By Elysa Batista
Capital News Service
Friday, Feb. 20, 2004

BALTIMORE - Standing outside his Catalpha Road home in northeast Baltimore, Charles Plsek can look south across Echodale Avenue to the 7th Congressional District and north across Gibbons Avenue to the 2nd District.

Plsek stands in a stretch of the 3rd District that is one block wide and four blocks long, separating the other two.

"It's not normal," the retired forklift operator said of the congressional boundaries in his neighborhood.

It's more than that, said Barry Rascovar, a columnist for the Gazette newspapers: "It's classic gerrymandering."

"It's the worst example of redistricting we've seen in Maryland . . . the worst gerrymandering in Maryland," Rascovar said. "It's surprising that it was not challenged in court."

Plsek's block is just the skinniest part of a district that starts near Reisterstown and runs into northwest Baltimore before curling around the eastern and southern edges of the city, then heading south again through parts of Anne Arundel and Howard counties and ending up in Annapolis.

The new district was concocted after the 2000 Census when Maryland, like all states, drew up new congressional and state legislative district boundaries to reflect changes in the population.

Former Secretary of State John T. Willis, who was in charge of the redistricting as chairman of the Governor's Redistricting Advisory Committee, said the committee did not mean for the 3rd District to look like it does. That's just how the numbers worked out, he said.

"It's a very complex situation, and population is the No. 1 driving characteristic," Willis said.

In early plans for the district, Plsek's corridor started out as a broader connection between parts of the 3rd District. But the plans changed to accommodate shifting population numbers.

When the dust cleared, the 3rd District, which used to encompass a big chunk of northern and eastern Baltimore City and small parts of Anne Arundel and Howard Counties, was cut down in size.

The final plan, Willis noted proudly, created eight congressional districts that had almost exactly the same number of people in them.

"All of our congressional districts don't deviate by more than one person," he said.

But Rascovar said that no matter how the committee "painted it", the new boundaries were drawn to favor Democratic candidates in the 2nd District.

"They needed 'x' number of votes . . . what you end up doing is juggling these neighborhood votes, and it becomes absurd," Rascovar said.

"The most absurd is that the politicians drawing up these districts are no longer concerned with the neighborhoods," he said. "All they care is, 'How many loyal Democrats can I get in this district?' "

Willis disagreed. Although the interests of incumbent representatives were taken into consideration, he said, no single district was favored.

"It's fair to say that no congressperson got what they wanted," Willis said.

For Plsek, 68, the boundaries are puzzling -- his polling place is across the street in the 7th District -- but not troubling. Besides, he said, he has not seen a politician campaigning on his block in almost 10 years.

His neighbor, John Mullen, is a staunch Democrat who has lived for 11 years in a house on Echodale Avenue, facing what is now the 7th District line. To him, it does not matter whether the boundary is across the street or in his back yard -- the important thing is to vote.

"Go to vote . . . and that's about it," Mullen said.

Copyright 2004 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism

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