The Redistricting Reform Commission. Photo by Howard Gorrell

The Redistricting Reform Commission. Photo by Howard Gorrell

By Len Lazarick

To some politicians and pundits, the governor’s Redistricting Reform Commission is a waste of time. Certainly covering its hearings and deliberations as much as has done is seen as a huge waste of time and space.

These stories are not widely read, although Todd Eberly’s testimony to the commission on how “Redistricting should restore representative democracy” was read by almost 5,000 people, one of our top stories of the past two months.

Probably anything the redistricting reform commission proposes will not pass the legislature next year or the year after that. It will probably not pass until the first year of a Hogan second term — a reelection Democrats will do their damnedest to prevent from occurring.

Wasting time on bills that can’t pass

State House reporters waste a lot of time covering legislation and proposals that are not likely to happen right away: abolition of the death penalty, increasing the minimum wage, raising the gas tax, same-sex marriage, decriminalizing marijuana.

Propositions that face uphill fights often take years to pass. It is part of the process of educating the legislators and their constituents, changing minds and influencing public opinion. Redistricting reform involves taking power from a powerful elite, and that doesn’t happen without a struggle, often a prolonged one.

Hogan’s Redistricting Reform Commission keeps the issue alive. It is frankly not a top concern for most people, or even the governor himself. For Marylanders, it does not have the importance of jobs, taxes, education and health care. Gerrymandering is not life threatening; it does not take money out of your pocket; it does not make you sick. Gerrymandering is simply wrong and unfair, especially as it has been manipulated by Republicans in other states and Democrats here.

Hogan is committed

By campaigning on the issue and then creating the commission, Gov. Hogan has committed himself to a fair and independent process for drawing district lines for members of Congress and the Maryland General Assembly. If he does win a second term, he would be giving up immense power against Democrats.

Does an independent commission help Republicans? Of course it does. They have been unfairly screwed by the Democratic establishment. Any fair drawing of lines will give them a second House seat, and possibly create a competitive swing district.

Fair redistricting also helps average Marylanders know who their representatives are and creates competitive elections rather than safe seats.

Commission process not ideal

The process for this redistricting reform commission has not been ideal. It has had too little time to do its job properly.

The discussion at this week’s session on its final recommendations showed most members lacked knowledge of how the system currently works. Having arrived at a rather complicated selection process for a new, independent bipartisan commission, they should now have hearings on that proposal in the most gerrymandered parts of central Maryland. But they won’t since the governor told them he wanted a report by next Tuesday.

A lack of hearings after a plan was drawn was among the many problems with the flawed and secret gerrymandering process in 2011. There were a ton of hearings all over the state before an advisory committee drew the maps. Then they went into a back room, drew the lines, and Gov. Martin O’Malley released the congressional districts on a weekend. There were no hearings on the plan itself, except for a perfunctory single hearing by the legislature in a special session.

There has been only one story about the plan the redistricting reform commission is considering. It ran here on Wednesday.

That plan needs more time for tweaking and to get feedback before the governor sends it to the legislature. In fact, if the commission won’t ask for another month to vet their recommendations, as they should, Hogan himself should hold a hearing before he submits it to the legislature.

Hogan should also be reaching out to his Democratic counterparts in Pennsylvania and Virginia. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, two Democrats with Republican legislatures, would have reason to work together with Hogan, and counter the partisan arguments against unilaterally disarming their power to gerrymander the other party.

Listen to Conway

There are good, smart, well-intentioned people on the commission, and it is important how much Sen. Joan Carter Conway has participated in its debate. She is the most experienced politician there, and the chair of the Senate committee that will likely handle any legislation they propose.

As always, she is blunt and focused on pragmatic politics, not pie-in-the-sky good government.

Conway believes congressional redistricting can be reformed by using the same standards that Maryland has for its legislative districts — they should be compact, contiguous and give due regard to natural and political boundaries. Conway also believes this could be done with a simple bill, rather than a constitutional amendment for the independent, bipartisan commission the redistricting reform panel will recommend.

She has not been bashful about opposing the high-minded solutions of her colleagues as impractical and unwinnable. Without abandoning their plans, they should also listen to her advice and back her simpler proposal as well.