Man carries anti-gerrymandering campaign to all redistricting hearings

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Howard Gorrell

Howard Gorrell

Howard Gorrell says he had no intention of attending all 12 public hearings of the Governor’s Redistricting Advisory Committee when he found himself the first witness at the first hearing July 23 in Hancock, the closest to his home in Smithsburg, Washington County.

Gorrell, who is deaf, found out that the state Planning Department had scheduled sign-language interpreters for all the hearings. “I know that no other deafie was interested in redistricting,” Gorrell said in an e-mail. (He rejects the politically correct term “hearing impaired.”) “So my job supervisor let me go to the second hearing in Frederick to show up in order to avoid embarrassment – that interpreters would interpret in front of no one. After the second hearing, I decided to attend the rest of the hearings if [there was] no conflict of schedule.”

He had no conflicts, so he did. Gorrell, 67, who works in the summer as an outside services attendant at Fountain Head Country Club in Hagerstown, found himself traipsing across the state for the next six weeks: to Largo, Rockville, Baltimore and LaPlata, to Annapolis, Columbia, Salisbury and Wye Mills, and finally, on Monday, to Bel Air and Randallstown.

At the start, he didn’t know any of the five committee members, who included Senate President Mike Miller, House Speaker Mike Busch, and Chair Jeanne Hitchcock, the governor’s appointments secretary. By the 4th hearing, Gorrell said they were greeting him as a friend.

At the final hearing in Randallstown, he asked Hitchcock to let him be the last speaker, and she agreed, putting him behind 28 other witnesses. Hitchcock told the audience that Gorrell had attended all 12 hearings and thanked him “for my citizen participation.” The audience applauded, he said.

Simple message

Gorrell’s message from first to last was fairly simple: No gerrymandering. No drawing of lines for political gain.

Election districts should be compact, and they should follow geographic and natural boundaries, he maintained. Counties should be kept whole and not cut up. And when parts of other counties must be added to make the population equal, he proposed adding clusters of high schools and their feeder schools.

Under Gorrell’s proposal, the 1st Congressional District would include 10 counties from Worcester north to Harford, and adding the Hereford school district in Baltimore County. The 6th would head east from Garrett to Carroll, with three school clusters added from Montgomery County. The 2nd would include almost all of Baltimore County, and the 3rd would encompass the entire Baltimore City, plus clusters in the county.

This sort of mapping is pretty foreign to the Democratic leaders that control the process. The consensus is that lines will be drawn to make reelection difficult for Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett in the 6th District, allowing the Dems to pick up a seventh seat in Maryland.

Not a novice at redistricting

Despite how he sounds, Gorrell is hardly naïve about how political redistricting works. Among his earlier jobs, he was a statistician in the 1970s for the National Republican Congressional Committee, helping conform redistricting to voting patterns. He served as a precinct and electoral analyst for the Republican National Committee, and as a research assistant for the Congressional Research Service at the Library of Congress, analyzing election results.

And now he’s trying to finish off his own congressional district map by Monday’s deadline for final submissions.

Gorrell was the first speaker to use the term gerrymandering, but hardly the last. All around the state people asked to keep their counties whole and not carved into strange shapes. Unfortunately, there is very little guidance from the U.S. Supreme Court about what constitutes illegal gerrymandering.

What does he think the outcome will be?

“It is hard to tell,” but a plan with less gerrymandering than 2002 could happen “because the committee members were tired from being hammered by most speakers.”

In a few weeks, when the advisory committee proposes a congressional redistricting plan to the governor, we’ll see if one man’s trek across Maryland and the other witnesses had any impact on the plan and the powerful political forces working on it behind the scenes.

–Len Lazarick