For five hours, a half-dozen members of the Prince George’s County Council were raked over the coals by their constituents in unusually blunt terms.
In October, the six voted to give preliminary approval to a county council redistricting plan that they had crafted in secret and sprang on the public — and their colleagues — with little warning.
At a public hearing that stretched until 10:30 Tuesday evening, approximately 120 county residents accused lawmakers of engaging in blatant gerrymandering.
Speaker after speaker alleged that the lawmakers — just enough to form a needed majority on the 11-member panel — were using the once-a-decade mapmaking process to influence next year’s elections by sliding several office-seekers into new districts.
Residents said the targeted candidates were those less likely to be sympathetic to developers.
“I’ve been outraged through this whole process by the underhanded redistricting,” said College Park resident Nicholas Brennan. “This is a blatant attempt to redistrict political opponents.”
Critics also complained that the map supported by the six lawmakers, which was drafted by Councilmember Derrick Leon Davis (D-District 6), broke apart community coalitions that had functioned for years.
Sarah Turberville, a member of the Edmonston council, said the Davis map “came to light with a shocking lack of transparency and without any meaningful community input.”
With a final vote looming, residents begged the council to discard the Davis map and opt instead for the map produced by an independent commission, which made relatively few changes to the county’s current districts.
Despite the vigorous opposition, councilmembers voted 6-3 to approve the substitute map.
Davis was joined by Council Chairman Calvin S. Hawkins II (D-At Large), Deni Taveras (D-District 2), Mel Franklin (D-At Large), Sydney J. Harrison (D-District 9) and Todd Turner (D-District 4). Voting against were Thomas E. Dernoga (D-District 1), Dannielle M. Glaros (D-District 3) and Jolene Ivey (D-District 5). One seat is vacant and one councilmember has been absent for medical reasons.
In comments following the vote, the six said they followed the same process the council has used in the past. They said that districts had to change to account for growth in the county’s population.
Some members of the prevailing side, having been hammered for five hours, gave rambling speeches in defense of their action.
“I listened intently to Harrison’s discussion,” said Dernoga, who voted against the proposal. “And I can only take away one fact — and that fact was I have no idea what the hell he was talking about.”
“Democracy lost today, developers won,” Dernoga added.
Glaros said residents’ “trust in government has been shattered” by the redistricting process.
“Their trust in each of you, completely shattered,” she added. “They know what gaslighting is.”
The council’s vote was the last step in the redistricting process. The Davis map will — barring a lawsuit — take effect on Nov. 30 and be used over the next ten years.
It will have significant impact on the 2022 elections.
Eric Olson (D), an independent-minded former councilmember who has campaigned since summer for the open District 3 seat, now finds himself in District 1, where he would have to run against Dernoga.
Community activist Tamara Davis Brown (D), who lost the District 9 primary to Harrison by 55 votes in 2018, has been moved into District 8.
Progressive activist Krystal Oriadha has likewise been campaigning for the District 7 seat she lost narrowly to now-councilmember Rodney C. Streeter (D) three years ago. But she has been pushed into District 5 by the changes approved Tuesday.
Critics of the Davis map pointed repeatedly to changes in the College Park area — where the lines appear to steer carefully around the neighborhood where Olson resides. That finger-shaped zig-zag was cited as proof that the majority was intent on keeping progressive voices from taking control of the council next year.
“I feel really embarrassed about this county that I grew up in,” said College Park resident Lily Fountain. “I, too, am appalled that strong opponents to the incumbents would be moved with surgical precision to other districts, making them ineligible to be candidates.”
South County resident Charles Askins called the “sneaky redistricting scheme” a “reprehensible power play.”
“It smells like the influence” of developers, he added. “If we all wanted a corrupt electoral process, we could all move to Texas.”
Over the last several weeks, as community opposition grew, Davis, Hawkins and other supporters of the substitute map denied they set out to target particular individuals. They insisted that their goal was to unite municipalities and create a majority-Latino District 2.
But dozens of elected leaders and citizens at the hearing rejected those claims out of hand.
“The choice to use equity as a window dressing for gerrymandering is downright appalling,” said Susan Whitney, a councilmember-elect in College Park.
Numerous speakers noted that not a single person testified in favor of the Davis map. They pledged that lawmakers who voted to discard the independent commission’s map would face retribution in the next election.
“You have no one speaking on your behalf here this evening,” said Aaron Faulx, a member of the Riverdale Park Council. “I hope this stains you for the rest of your political career.”