Redistricting: Hogan’s High Ground, Democrats’ Political Opportunity?

For most of his term, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) has tried to occupy the moral high ground on the obscure but politically charged issue of redistricting. Hogan appointed the Redistricting Reform Commission, to study how the state draws congressional and legislative district lines. Task force members came up with a proposal to take the responsibility out of the hands of politicians and give it to a nonpartisan commission. But the idea was rejected by the legislature, where Democrats suggested a partisan motive to Hogan’s agenda and questioned why Democratic Maryland should abandon the practice of gerrymandering when Republican-led states like Texas, Ohio, Michigan, Florida, Wisconsin and North Carolina were not. They frequently say they don’t want to “unilaterally disarm.” As the fall election approaches, Hogan will continue to cast himself as a reformer on redistricting, a popular position with voters when they think about it – though most don’t. But some Democrats believe the issue may work to their advantage in the gubernatorial campaign – as progressive activists start to openly fret about the prospect of a Republican leading the redistricting process, if Hogan wins a second term. They hope that fear motivates Democrats to go to the polls and vote for Hogan’s challenger, former NAACP president Benjamin T. Jealous. “This is a scary thing for them to think about – Larry Hogan drawing the district lines,” said Mileah Kromer, a political science professor and pollster at Goucher College.  Walter Olson is chairman of the state’s Redistricting Reform Commission.  But it isn’t quite that simple. The next round of congressional and legislative redistricting won’t take place until 2022, following the 2020 U.S. Census. If Hogan is reelected, and if the system for drawing new maps in Maryland doesn’t change, he’ll have plenty of say over the new boundaries. But so will legislative Democrats – especially if they keep their super majorities in the Senate and House this fall. So even if Hogan attempts to use the full powers of his office to craft overly partisan boundaries, he may not get as far as he’d like – or as some Democrats fear. In a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 2-1, Democrats hold seven of the state’s eight congressional seats, thanks to an overly partisan redistricting process following the 2010 Census. That map resulted in litigation that eventually wound up before the U.S. Supreme Court this year, though without much resolution (Hogan filed a friend of the court brief in favor of the lawsuit). Meanwhile, Democrats have a 33-14 edge in the state Senate and a 90-51 majority in the House of Delegates. Maryland’s congressional delegation was split 4-4 as recently as 2002, but that changed after overly partisan maps crafted by then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) in 2002 and then-Gov. Martin J. O’Malley (D) in 2013. Which is why some Democrats fear – and some Republicans not-so-secretly hope – that Hogan could attempt to be just as hard-edged politically after the next Census, if he earns a second term. Many Democrats believe Hogan’s first-term push for changing the redistricting process has been more about diluting Democratic partisan gains than any true zeal for reform. As national Democrats push to seize control of the House of Representatives, a shift of a couple of Maryland seats into the GOP column could complicate their efforts. “It seems to us that Larry Hogan just wants to make sure that Republicans remain in control at the national level,” said Jerusalem Demsas, a spokeswoman for Jealous. In a statement provided to Maryland Matters, Scott Sloofman, a spokesman for the Hogan campaign, said the governor remains committed to the idea of a nonpartisan commission to redraw congressional and legislative maps “in a fair and equitable way that ensures politicians have to compete for every vote.” Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute’s Robert A. Levy Center for Constitutional Studies in Washington, D.C., and co-chairman of the state’s redistricting reform commission, said in an interview that the commission remains technically alive, though dormant at the moment. “We’re in a holding pattern,” Olson said. “I don’t imagine that the commission is a high priority right in the middle of an election season.” ‘It has been a major talking point’ Legislative leaders reluctantly assigned two members from each chamber to serve on the 11-member redistricting commission, which Hogan set up. Coincidentally, the two Senate members – Joan Carter Conway (D-Baltimore City) and Stephen M. Waugh (R-St. Mary’s) were defeated in their respective primaries in June.  Olson said he is convinced that Hogan wants redistricting reform to happen and won’t attempt a partisan play in the post-2020 process. “I can’t imagine him changing that attitude in his second term,” he said. “This is certainly something he’d want to see done on his watch.” Kromer, the Goucher political scientist, said sticking with the reform pitch makes sense for Republicans as long as they are in a minority in the state. “The long-term play for any Republican in Maryland is with an independent commission,” she said. But that hasn’t stopped some Democrats from sounding the alarm about redistricting in a second Hogan term. Demsas, Jealous’ spokeswoman, said the Democrat’s background as a civil rights leader ensures that Marylanders’ voting rights will be preserved in the next round of redistricting. She said state and national progressive groups are starting to focus on the issue. “People are much more willing to trust Ben Jealous on the map,” Demsas said. “It has been a major talking point.” If Hogan had full control of the redistricting process, political strategists in both parties could see a return to a 4-4 split in the congressional delegation, and the distribution of seats in the state Senate could also be much tighter. Republicans have talked about drawing single-member districts in the House of Delegates, instead of doing three-member districts, with some subdistricts, the way the lines are drawn now. This could yield an additional eight or 10 GOP seats, some operatives estimate. If Hogan is reelected but isn’t able to reform the redistricting process, a delicate balance between the two parties would exist. Under current law, the Maryland congressional plan is introduced as a regular bill in the General Assembly and must be passed by both houses and signed by the governor — who also has veto power over the plan. For the legislative map, the governor prepares a plan and the presiding officers of the legislature must have the plan introduced as a joint resolution on the first day of the regular session in the second year following the decennial census (which in this case would be in 2022). If the General Assembly has not adopted another redistricting plan by the end of the 45th day of the session, the governor’s plan as presented becomes law. Traditionally, the governor introduces a congressional district map along with the legislative district map, however the General Assembly may vote on and approve a congressional or legislative district map introduced by any members. So in addition to the gubernatorial election, this year’s state Senate elections could be pivotal to the process. If the GOP is able to win five Democratic-held seats, and Hogan is reelected, then Senate Republicans would be able to filibuster any debate over Democratic maps and sustain any Hogan vetoes of Democratic plans. But flipping five Senate seats seems like a tall order at this point, which means compromise during redistricting deliberations may be inevitable. “Presumably, at that point,” Olson predicted, “people come back to some kind of negotiating table.” [email protected]

Josh Kurtz
Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.

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