When North Carolina lawmakers wanted to lump as many of the state’s black voters as possible into a single district (didn’t want minorities influencing too many races in white districts, after all), they produced the wondrous North Carolina 12th, which snaked its way from Durham to Charlotte, at some points no wider than the width of the highway.
The Wall Street Journal called it an act of political pornography, and it was so long and narrow the saying went that if you drove down Interstate 85 with your doors open you’d kill everyone in the district.
Redistricting gives politicians a chance to redraw political boundaries to their advantage once every 10 years — although some states can’t wait that long. In 2003, Texas Republicans decided they weren’t Republican enough and redrew the lines that turned a 17-15 Democratic edge in Congress to 21-11 in favor of the GOP.
So don’t weep too hard for Maryland Republicans when Democrats make a grab for one measly seat. They’re just doing what every other state party across this great land is doing at the moment. And since far more state legislatures in America are in Republican hands, more districts in America will be drawn to favor Republicans.
Of course that leaves us here in Western Maryland as collateral damage in a national political war. That’s not right, even if there is a small, sinister part of me that’s gleeful that our local lawmakers with congressional aspirations will now have to start paying attention to blacks and Hispanics.
No wonder Sen. Chris Shank stayed home to enjoy the company of his children this summer instead of joining Del. Neil Parrott on the front lines of a tireless campaign to put the screws to Latino high school students.
I’m sure this wasn’t his chief motivation, but as a side benefit it was an artful way to excuse himself in the eyes of red-meat illegal immigrant haters, while not stirring up any self-directed anger in the minority sections of Montgomery County that will soon become part of our congressional district.
And for all the statewide chatter about how the Democrats’ redistricting plan is aimed specifically at destroying Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, that hardly rings true. Bartlett drifts through the halls of Congress like an elderly comet, traveling in his own orbit without much involvement in today’s world of political hardball. He’s conservative, but harmless.
That wouldn’t be the case for aggressive Western Maryland GOP turks such as Shank and Frederick’s Alex Mooney who have been sharp thorns in the side of State House leadership. Democrats want to pick up a seat in Congress, naturally, but if they can block Shank or Mooney’s entrance into the national political scene, so much the better.
The Democrats have an attractive candidate in mind for the district, Sen. Rob Garagiola, a Montgomery County resident and a deputy majority leader in Annapolis. They believe Garagiola, 39, could flick Bartlett aside like one of the stink bugs the 85-year-old congressman is always hotly pursuing.
Bartlett seems intent on once again proving the pundits wrong, as he did 20 years ago, and therein lies the problem for Republicans. Shank, with his political acumen, and Mooney, with his epic fundraising machine, could theoretically give the GOP a better shot at holding onto the seat in 2012.
But if Bartlett refuses to step gracefully aside, what then? Shank has proved he can take on a titan and win; his star is rising, as opposed to Mooney, whose own county dumped him as its state senator last year. But if Shank runs against Bartlett (although as of now, he says he won’t) and the conservative base is already divided, Mooney and others might throw their caps into the ring as well and take their chances.
Worse for Shank, there is a slice of the conservative Washington County electorate that has not (and probably never will) forgiven him for his bruising race against former Sen. Don Munson. If Shank batters the grandfatherly Bartlett, he probably loses another slice. In a toss-up district, those losses among your own troops can be fatal.
Unless, of course, Shank begins to channel his inner moderate (for example, by sitting out the immigrant tuition battle) in order to steal away some of the district’s independent voters from the Democratic nominee.
The final wild card very well might be the upcoming redrawing of the state legislative districts themselves. There have been rumors that the Democrats will try to reconfigure Shank’s senatorial district so as to include a lot of Frederick County Democrats.
But in a solidly conservative region in what looks to be a conservative-leaning national election next year, state Democrats toy with Shank at their own risk. And in the end, that’s probably for the best. Politicians should lose their jobs only when the voters say so, not because of a new set of artificial lines drawn up in political back rooms.
Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.
Competition comes to the 6th District
Tim Rowland (November 30, 2010)