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Commentary Election 2020

Frank DeFilippo: Andy Harris Is Not the First District’s Only Embarrassment

Rep. Andrew P. Harris (R-Md.). Harris Facebook photo.

It’s a durable article of political lore that people in public office are pretty much like the people who elect them.

There’s a fleeting temptation to feel sorry for the voters of Maryland’s First Congressional District. But the urge for sympathy passes quickly. They chose Rep. Andy Harris as their congressman, so the buck lands there and they got what they deserve.

For the benighted few who blanked on the commotion of the past two weeks, a recap: Harris, Maryland’s only Republican in Congress, decided to take impeachment day off from his job as a $174,000-a-year member of Congress and spend the time at his side job of putting people to sleep. He’s an anesthesiologist.

He later bragged that being in Congress on that day, a day that will live in history, voting whichever way he chose — which would have been against impeachment — was a waste of time. He had, he said, better things to do than his elected job. So much for how Harris views his responsibility to his state and his constituents.

The seven Democrats in the eight-member Maryland House delegation all voted to impeach President Trump for the second time, a historic first for a president, and Harris won’t even be a footnote to the action. Trump was impeached for the seditious act of inciting a riot against the government – his and Harris’ own government.

Democrats had called for Harris’ resignation after he got into a scuffle on the House floor during the debate over whether to certify Joe Biden’s victory as president. Harris has been a boisterous defender of Trump and a stern exemplar of the conservative dogma to which the Eastern Shore half of the First District traditionally subscribes.

(The First District, before the “one man, one vote” edict, bracketed the nine Eastern Shore counties. It now comprises the nine Shore counties and parts of Harford, Carroll and Baltimore counties. The population is about equally divided between the Eastern and Western Shores.)

But listen up! Harris is not the First District’s only and original embarrassment of Maryland. He is merely the latest.

Back in the 1960s, Thomas F. Johnson was ejected from office after criminal charges were brought against him involving the acceptance of illegal gratuities in a savings and loan scandal that spread to Capitol Hill where he represented the First District.

William Mills succeeded to Congress from the First, replacing his old boss, Rogers C. B. Morton, who was appointed secretary of the Interior by Richard M. Nixon. Mills later put a shotgun to his chest and committed suicide when it was discovered that his 1971 special election campaign was aided by a $25,000 unreported cash transfer from the Nixon campaign.

Robert Bauman, a former member of the Maryland Senate who succeeded Mills in Congress and an active and outspoken conservative, lost his seat in 1980 after he was arrested in the nation’s capital for soliciting sex from a 16-year-old male prostitute while running for reelection.

Roy Dyson, another former Maryland legislator, defeated Bauman for the First District seat after losing to him in 1976. Dyson was defeated by Wayne Gilchrest, an unknown school teacher, in 1988, amid allegations of improper contributions to Dyson from defense contractors.

Dyson was also damaged politically by the suicide of his chief of staff, Thomas M. Pappas, who leaped to his death from the 24th floor of the Helmsley Palace Hotel in New York. There were rumors about the relationship between the two men and newspaper reports that Pappas made unconventional demands from male members of Dyson’s staff.

All of which brings us around to Gov. Larry Hogan’s annual redistricting burlesque. Which lights up the playful thought that maybe he can make a straight-player deal with another state and trade off Harris to, say, West Virginia, where he can join his former Maryland Senate-mate, Rep. Alex Mooney, who now represents West Virginia, in that zany and fantastical aberrated mental-state that the two inhabit.

Hogan and Harris do not see eye to eye on Trump’s self-inflicted decline and fall. Hogan has been one of the nation’s most outspoken elected officials against Trump and his destructive and divisive politics. But he declined to join others in calling for Harris’ resignation.

There is little that is fair or equitable about congressional redistricting. As with many political matters, redistricting is about winning elections and having control of votes. In Annapolis, there is only one mandate – having 24 votes in the Senate and 71 votes in the House. With those in hand, an elected official has a passport to pretty much anything they want.

The redistricting hassle arises every 10 years, following the requisite census when congressional seats are awarded on the basis of population. There are no guidelines or requirements for redistricting except that there must be 435 districts with roughly equal population, give or take a few dozen bodies.

Back in time-warped 1962, for example, the issue wound up in federal court when Maryland lawmakers were unable to figure out how to carve up the state to accommodate the eighth member of Congress that the state was awarded through population growth.

The court threatened to make the adjustment if legislators were unable to accomplish the task. Befuddled, the General Assembly found a unique solution. They created the office of congressman at-large. The position lasted four years, until the Assembly managed to squeeze the eighth seat into a new Congressional district configuration.

This season, Hogan chose to bypass the General Assembly in the initial stages of his yearly caterwauling about redistricting. He decided to try executive fiat, that is, creating an executive commission to adjust the squiggles on Maryland’s congressional map.

“The people of Maryland should be drawing these lines, not party leaders or bosses,” Hogan stated upon issuing his executive order.

Trouble is, most Marylanders wouldn’t know a gerrymander from a salamander. In our representative form of government, people elect from among their fellow citizens those who will represent their wishes in the corners and crannies of government.

Besides, redistricting (and legislative reapportionment) is not on the Assembly’s worksheet until next year. The census figures, on which congressional boundaries are based, are not available and likely will be further delayed as the Trump administration tried to cook the books by eliminating certain ethnic populations from the census count.

The problem is two-fold: Democrats are in charge by veto-proof majorities in both houses, and Hogan is a Republican. And the second difficulty is that Maryland is a misshapen mess. It is not a clear and simple patch of neatly drawn squares and rectangles such as Pennsylvania, Kansas, Wyoming or Colorado.

But no, Maryland is a wild and wacky run-away ink blot of a state with a narrow panhandle attached to two droopy shores that are separated by the Chesapeake Bay. Redistricting is like a balloon. Squeeze one place, and it pops in another place.

If Maryland, for example, were a more accommodating space, Harris’ seat would have been redistricted out of existence, or at least accessible to a certified Democrat, as was Roscoe Bartlett, of the Sixth District, in the last redistricting skirmish.

Hogan has laid down a prescription for the composition and function of his redistricting commission – a nine-member mix of public and political representation, which includes independents. Which begs the question – why include independents when they choose, by registration, not to participate in much of the political process, notably primary elections, and have no investment in either major party?

Anyway, in a tetchy little roundelay, the plan designed by the commission would be submitted to the General Assembly, which can draw its own plan (and probably will), which Hogan would likely veto and the Assembly would probably override. Goodbye, commission plan.

Let it be noted that neighboring Virginia has just named a commission to undertake the same assignment of redrawing that state’s congressional boundary lines. However, that was done by voter approval of a constitutional amendment that required the action, and not out of executive pique.

And let it be further noted that Republicans are now in full control of 24 states which are unlikely to extend the courtesy of fairness to rival Democratic states.

Fairness in congressional redistricting works only if every state participates.


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Frank DeFilippo: Andy Harris Is Not the First District’s Only Embarrassment