Unusual political coalition for redistricting reform battles intransigent Democrats

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Commentary By Greg Kline

For MarylandReporter.com

Gov. Larry Hogan gives his State of the State address Feb. 3.

Gov. Larry Hogan gives his State of the State address Feb. 3.

The ongoing issue of redistricting in Maryland represents one of the most unique political alignments in state politics in some time.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has found common cause on this issue with not only his Republican base, but independent voters as well as progressive and “good government” Democrats. Liberal special interest groups have endorsed Hogan’s plan and criticized the state’s Democratic leadership.

Even the editorial boards of the state’s leading newspapers have overwhelmingly supported the governor’s cause on this issue.

In this State of the State address last week, Governor Hogan noted that he had “created the Redistricting Reform Commission to fight for the nonpartisan drawing of district lines – something nearly all Marylanders are strongly in favor of.” He went on to implore legislators to “set an example for the entire nation by finally making Maryland elections fair elections.”

Common Cause, League of Women Voters, the Sun and the Post

Common Cause called the Governor’s proposal a “fair and transparent approach to redistricting to give the people a true voice in who represents them.” The League of Women Voters has made passage of Hogan’s redistricting reform plan one of its top priorities for 2016. The proposal also has the support of a coalition of groups, who are often opposed to much of the governor’s agenda, known as “Tame the Gerrymander”.

The state’s editorial boards, many regularly critical of Gov. Hogan and who endorsed his opponent in the 2014 election, have been nearly effusive in their support of his redistricting reform proposal. The Baltimore Sun called Hogan’s plan “the right plan” that is “balanced between Democrats, Republicans and independents, and he has the people on his side.” The Sun has also been critical of Democratic objections to redistricting chiding “at least opponents should have the decency to offer intellectually honest critiques.”

The Washington Post enthusiastically endorsed Hogan’s reform proposal calling objections of state Democrats “a cop-out”.

Democrats defend the indefensible

Confronted with such an unusual and nearly universal alliance against them, how have Maryland Democratic leaders responded? Have they acknowledged the popularity and basic fairness of the Governor’s proposal? Have they admitted that Maryland’s redistricting process is hyper-partisan and designed to keep the Maryland Democratic Party ensconced in power in spite of popular opinion? Have they been honest enough to concede that their opposition to reform is based solely on maintaining a monopoly on control of state government?

On all accounts, of course, the answer is no.

Senate President Mike Miller and House of Delegates Speaker Mike Busch chose, instead, to defend the indefensible. They have not even taken the Sun’s admonition to “offer intellectually honest critiques” to heart.

Recently, President Miller made some remarks about his objections to Hogan’s redistricting proposal.  As my Red Maryland colleague Jeffrey Peters points out, his claims raise more questions than answers.  While claiming that “No state east of the Mississippi has adopted a redistricting reform plan” Miller ignores independent commissions in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio. He also ignores advisory commissions in other Eastern states.

Even more egregious is the claim made by Speaker Busch that he didn’t like the outcome of the most recent redistricting in Maryland either. Busch and Miller were the primary movers of the committee that drew the district lines in the first place. (While there was a Republican member of the committee, as we noted at Red Maryland at the time, calling him a “token” Republican is unfair to tokens everywhere.)

I have searched in vain for any comments at the time that Speaker Busch was the least bit unhappy with the lines he was so integral in drawing.  He had numerous opportunities at public hearings and during the General Assembly’s consideration of the product of his efforts to express such concerns but I defy anyone to find a single criticism he ever made. If the hyper-partisanship employed in drawing Maryland’s district lines really gave Speaker Busch any concern, an absurd suggestion on its face, it wouldn’t appear he let anyone know.  Even more telling, though, his newly minted dislike of the product of the redistricting he produced has not caused the speaker to support redistricting reform in the slightest.

Long term impact unclear

And so here we have an issue where a Republican governor has the support of the vast majority of Marylanders, the support of even progressive interest groups and the uniform support of the state’s media establishment. In contrast, President Miller and Speaker Busch find themselves opposed by many of their core constituencies and have chosen to rather ham handedly defend the indefensible rather than admit the merits of reform or their own partisan intransigence.

It is a rare alignment in Maryland politics. One we have never seen before and likely will not see again soon.  While the issue’s legislative outcome may be clear, it is far from certain what the long term impact this issue will have on the political standing of Governor Hogan, who can buffet his bipartisan and good government bona fides, or on leading state Democrats, forced to show their callous self-interest and desire for power over the public good,.

Greg Kline is a founder and senior editor of RedMaryland.com as well as the general manager of the Red Maryland Network.  Greg is also an attorney practicing in Severna Park.  He can be reached at Gregory.Kline@gklinelaw.com or 410-541-6384.

  • Jon

    Hi Laura,

    Just wanted to leave a comment about an issue with your article, in case you decide to read down here. New Jersey and Pennsylvania do not exactly have any sort of fair redistricting process:

    New Jersey is set up to allow either one side or the other to gerrymander. In 2011, it just so happened that Democrats slipped up and basically selected a member that sided with Republicans and let them rig the map with their own plan.

    Pennsylvania has a similar situation for state legislative districts, where both parties have seats at the table, but the PA Supreme Court selects the final vote, allowing either side to gerrymander if they get that extra vote. PA SC was conservative at the time and obviously selected a Republican final vote, who proceeded to approve extremely rigged maps for PA legislative districts. For Congressional districts, the legislature crafts that map, with a Gov. veto possible. They also elected to create one of the most badly rigged maps in the country and Corbett passed them no problem

    Ohio only recently sent a ballot initiative to the voters that creates a more fair process for legislative redistricting only. It’s better, but not perfect. Lawmakers, or rather the speaker, seems to be refusing to do the same for Congressional districts at the behest of the Republican House delegation, as they are concerned about their House majority.

    So the guy is somewhat right, save for Florida, where voters themselves got reform passed – Except that it was only rules and NOT an independent commission, which led to almost half a decade of rigged maps while the GOP stalled the court cases to prolong their majorities.

  • Vidi

    Very informative explanation below. Appreciate comments that don’t excite rancor.
    Regarding the Miller-Busch opposition to redistricting, I wonder if they are totally immune to reality and to the intelligence of the voters of Maryland who see this as a hugely transparent power play. Shame on M-B.

    • ksteve

      There is nothing more politically partisan than redistricting. The goal, by both parties (whenever they have the power to legally draw the lines) is to maximize their numbers in the Congress and legislature. That’s so they can get the legislation passed that suits their philosophy. What Democrats do in Maryland, Republicans do or have done after the 2010 census in way more states and bigger ones (like North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida). The “hugely transparent power play” here in Maryland is being played by Governor Hogan, who clearly wants to reduce the number of Democrats and increase the number of Republicans in the Congress and the legislature with his redistricting “reform” plan. Anyone who knows anything about politics knows that Republican-controlled states aren’t going to voluntarily follow suit and surrender their advantage. A few of them are or have been under court order to reform their gerrymandered districts, but any reform they do is very reluctant. For example, North Carolina is currently fighting a lower federal court decision concerning their congressional districts all the way to the Supreme Court. If anyone or any purist group (like Common Cause) really wants fairness in this matter, they should be pushing the Congress for a requirement that EVERY state redistrict in the same manner at the same time. Otherwise, we’ll just have a continuation of the status quo and a lot of phony baloney partisan talk about it.

      • Vidi

        Does it really matter what Republican-dominated states do about redistricting. I live in Maryland and I’d like to see some fairness here which is what an independent commission would likely do. I’d like to see more of a balance which might lead to more bipartisan discussion (one can hope) and less of an arrogant use of power by one heavily dominant party which by the way I belong to.

        • ksteve

          Yes, if you care about public policy and what emerges from the Congress and state legislatures, it matters what Republican-dominated states do about redistricting. Republican gerrymanders in other states have given us the kind of obstructionist right-wing Congress that we have. Democrats in Maryland can’t unilaterally effectively shoot themselves in the foot while Republicans elsewhere laugh and do nothing to reform their own process. Fairness is a two-way street. We need a congressional requirement that all states redistrict in the same way at the same time. Some once said: “Politics ain’t beanbag.” If only we could all be nice. Well, it just doesn’t seem to work that way.

  • Greg

    Jon – I don’t know about Laura but there are links to all of the references to other states that people can explore as they will. That point, though, is a very minor one in the article and was referenced to bascially refute a single comment from Senator Miller which even with your tortured defense seems to have been disproven.

    How about the responding to the bulk of the article?

  • Jon

    Hi Greg,

    I didn’t post to slam Laura or try and denigrate her article at all. I do apologize if it may have come off that way. I simply wanted to point out that her statement on those other states mentioned gives the impression that they have made redistricting fair with some sort of reforms at one point or another, which is not true at all. PA, NJ and OH are still using rigged maps right now, and all of those states, with the exception of Ohio, will likely implement gerrymandered maps against in 2021-2022. Just in December, Democrats in NJ tried to pass a redistricting amendment that would have further rigged their maps in their favor but it appears to have been stalled.

    Now, I understand she provided links. But their commissions or advisory boards are nothing like what is implied. Those states still largely allow complete gerrymandering. The type of reform Hogan is proposing is good, and should be done, but if it were implemented – It would be far fairer and complete than anything those states she mentioned has. I’ve done a lot of research on redistricting since 2011 in a lot of states, and I follow reform very closely, so I’m not just talking here. I can provide as much data as necessary to back this up. However, looking up each state’s redistricting process on Ballotpedia would tell you everything you need to know.

    As for responding to the rest of the article – I agree with a lot of it, and I am very pro-reform. I have no issues really with any of this except that she incorrectly implied that those states had reformed their process when in fact they had not.

    I don’t understand why you are thinking I was very critically attacking her piece. I wasn’t.

    • Greg

      When you say that people have “an issue with” an article it is usually a criticism. I imagine Laura is less sensitive than I am on this score. Thanks for the feedback and I hope we will see positive change on this issue.

  • lenlazarick

    A regular reader forwarded this comment:

    In Greg Kline’s piece today, he asserted that President Miller has ignored the independent commission in PA. The hot link in the article is to the PA constitution. This, and the language that supports it, is misleading. The hot link should instead be to the PA commission. The tab on congressional districting, http://www.redistricting.state.pa.us/Congressional-Redistricting.cfm, clearly states that

    Congressional redistricting is not handled by the Legislative Reapportionment Commission.

    Rather, the boundaries of Congressional seats in Pennsylvania are redrawn after every Federal decennial census by legislative action – in other words, a bill which proceeds through both chambers of the General Assembly and is signed into law by the Governor.

    This is important, because the magnitude of the GOP-biased redistricting plan in PA was much bigger than the Dem-favoring plan in MD. See, e.g., the contemporaneous http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2011/12/14/in_pennsylvania_the_gerrymander_of_the_decade_112404.html

    Dems actually are naturally disadvantaged in PA, given their clustering in Philly and Pittsburgh, IF a compactness standard is used for redistricting. But the results in PA go far, far, beyond that.

    So are only Dems being partisan when:

    1. Senators Miller, Pinsky, Raskin, and other Dems insist on a interstate compact approach?

    and

    2. GOP advocates pretend that PA isn’t grossly gerrymandered in their favor?