By Pierce Jaffri
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
Two Baltimore County legislators are part of a small group of Democrats statewide who support a Republican-led initiative to change the way Maryland state legislative and congressional districts are drawn.
State Rep. Eric Bromwell, D-District 8, and state Sen. James Brochin, D-District 42, are opposing the popular opinion of their party regarding redistricting reform because they say the current system leads to gerrymandered districts that do not accurately reflect the Maryland electorate.
“You simply cannot defend the current practice and say, ‘This is fair, this is adequate,’” Bromwell said in an interview. “You just can’t look at a congressional map or even a legislative map anymore and say, ‘That makes sense.’”
Bromwell and Brochin – who were both elected in 2002 – were the only Democratic lawmakers who attended and testified at the first of five regional public meetings that will be held by the Maryland Redistricting Reform Commission, which was established by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in August with the intention of allowing Marylanders the opportunity to provide direct input about the districting process.
“I just don’t think that politicians should be picking their voters,” Brochin said in an interview after he testified during the Sept. 15 meeting at Towson University. “I think the voters should be picking their politicians. We’re in Annapolis for a higher purpose, and the higher purpose is to be fair and equitable.”
According to the Maryland governor’s website, the Maryland Redistricting Reform Commission is a bipartisan panel tasked with examining Maryland’s legislative districts “with the goal of fully reforming” the redistricting process and “giving this authority to an independent, nonpartisan commission.”
Hogan’s executive order states that the commission must deliver a report of its findings to the governor, senate president and speaker of the house by Nov. 3. Congressional and legislative districts must be redrawn once every 10 years, with the next cycle coming after the 2020 census.
Redistricting reform is a contentious issue in Maryland, particularly because the last two redistricting cycles occurred during the incumbencies of Democratic governors Parris Glendening and Martin O’Malley.
Along with a state legislature dominated by Democrats, Glendening and O’Malley oversaw the redrawing of state and congressional districts to help Democrats maintain power in districts they already occupied, while simultaneously gaining legislative seats in districts that were once represented by Republicans.
According to an Aug. 6 article in the Baltimore Sun, for example, Anne Arundel County is split into four different congressional districts, each represented by a Democrat, even though the county tends to vote Republican at the local level.
During the last redistricting cycle, O’Malley and Democratic lawmakers changed the boundaries of Maryland’s 6th Congressional District to make it easier for Democrat John Delaney to defeat the 10-term Republican incumbent Roscoe Bartlett. Bartlett lost his congressional seat after his Republican-dominated district in western Maryland was altered to include a large number of Democratic voters from liberal Montgomery County.
Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District, which encompasses parts of Baltimore County and is represented by Democrat John Sarbanes, has also been criticized. A Baltimore Sun article published on Aug. 6 said a federal judge “likened the 3rd district to a broken-winged pterodactyl.”
Maryland is not the only state with gerrymandered districts. States with Republican-dominated legislatures such as Texas draw district lines to favor the Republican Party, whereas Democrat-dominated state legislatures have ensured districts are drawn to favor the Democratic Party.
Hogan’s reform efforts will likely face strong opposition in the state legislature, which is dominated by Democrats. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller recently dismissed the governor’s efforts, telling the Baltimore Sun in August that it was just “a chapter out of the Republican governor’s playbook.”
Although Republicans face difficulty with reform efforts due to a lack of seats in the legislature, Democrats may also face difficulty in the coming years with redistricting resistance efforts due to a potential change in public opinion of the way districts should be drawn in Maryland.
A 2013 Gonzales poll of registered voters in Maryland found that 68 percent of Democrats, 78 percent of Republicans and 83 percent of Independents that were polled favored an independent commission being in charge of redistricting.
Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, the executive director of the nonpartisan, grassroots governmental watchdog organization known as Common Cause Maryland, said reform of the redistricting process would better represent Marylanders in state and national politics.
“Right now, our congressional – and to a good extent, our state legislative district lines — cut through communities, neighborhoods and even cul-de-sacs,” Bevan-Dangel said in an interview. “This makes it harder for people to know their elected officials, hold their elected officials responsible and harder for elected officials to fairly represent the communities they serve.”
For Bromwell and Brochin, the 2016 legislative session may place them in a minority position among their party colleagues when the issue of redistricting reform arrives on the House and Senate floors.
But both legislators said they will practice an independent manner of governance when it comes to supporting redistricting reform efforts.
“Even though I’m a Democrat, and we’re, you know, the party in power in the legislature, I think that’s even more of a reason to be pushing forward with it,” Bromwell said. “This is a national issue as well. If Maryland does this, we would be one of the only states that do it. We really need to have buy-in from everywhere, and I’m hoping we can be a leader in that.”