Out and About (Sort of): Look to Annapolis by Howard Freedlander

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About this time every year, I suggest that readers pay attention to the deliberations of the annual 90-day session of the Maryland General Assembly. It may not be as dramatic and absurd as the goings-on of the U.S. Congress and our deeply flawed White House occupant—but, nonetheless, its impact is easily felt from Oakland in Western Maryland to Crisfield on the Lower Eastern Shore.

I must admit that state government may be the last refuge for consistently significant legislative initiatives that often draw bipartisan agreement and even a degree of comity among state senators and delegates who are as diverse as Maryland, with its urban and rural enclaves and varied political viewpoints. So, pay heed to the state’s 439th General Assembly, now nearly a week-old.

Before I offer my take on the critical issues facing our 188 legislators, which includes 60 new members, I must express my prayers to Sen. Mike Miller, an Annapolis legend who has served more than three decades as president of the Maryland State Senate. Diagnosed with an advanced form of prostate cancer, Miller, a wily master of the legislative process and political cunning, will continue to preside over the 47-person State Senate while undergoing chemotherapy treatment.

As a prostate cancer survivor, I have some inkling of Miller’s fraught medical prospects. Because his cancer has spread beyond the prostate gland, the gentleman from Southern Maryland lacks the option for surgery or radiation, the normal choices for those of us whose prostate cancer had not metastasized. As he said last week, Miller will be in good hands at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

Many of us on the Eastern Shore with serious diagnoses of many types feel fortunate that one of the greatest hospitals in the world is roughly 90 minutes away. It is an invaluable safety net.

To keep this week’s column to a manageable length, I will focus on two issues that particularly interest me, If the spirit moves me, I may seek readers’ tolerance and write a follow-up next week.

Republican Governor Larry Hogan will try to persuade the Democratic General Assembly to debate how to draw up Maryland’s congressional districts in a fair way. Our state’s gerrymandered districts are a farce.

Democrats are awaiting a decision by the U.S, Supreme Court to uphold or negate a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals that the boundaries drawn for the 6th Congressional District are unconstitutional.

Hogan has recommended the creation of a nonpartisan commission that would oversee redistricting, beginning after the 2020 Census. I think the idea is a good and necessary one

I feel particularly strongly after the recent election in our 1st Congressional District here on the Shore and parts of Baltimore and Harford counties. I watched with dismay as Jesse Colvin, a Democrat, waged an energetic campaign against incumbent Representative Andy Harris, a Republican who has held the office since 2010—when the district was drawn to create a safe seat for a Republican while redesigning the 6th District in Western Maryland to make it more favorable for a Democrat.

Despite an all-out effort by Colvin, a first-time candidate who brought Republicans and Independents into his camp (not enough) and raised more money than Harris, he lost by 22 percentage points. Harris has a hold on the 1st District. As he said, he didn’t create a district favorable to him or any other conservative Republican; the Democrats did.

When a district is gerrymandered, no longer fairly representing voters at both ends of the political scale, democracy suffers. In the 1st Congressional District, for example, Democratic voters feel they are unrepresented by Andy Harris, who needs only to cater the needs of those who gave him a commanding victory. That is not to say that Harris would not help a Democratic constituent with personal concern, i.e. a passport or Social Security claim. The perception is that he feels no need to seek goodwill from Democrats.

Let’s take this one step further. Call it realpolitik. When Rep. Harris considers a congressional bill or regulatory action, he need not adopt a centrist position that would satisfy both Republicans and Democrats. He can vote with the ultra-conservative wing of his party, because he fears no retribution. Not when you win an election by double-digit percentage points.

Political observers of both stripes bemoan gerrymandering. They believe, as I do, that Congress is stuck in an uncompromising quagmire because senators and representatives represent extremes. The middle is increasingly unpopulated. Ignoring for the moment that members of Congress ideally represent the country’s interest, I realize that political science, as many of us studied in college, is based mostly in fantasyland.

Re-election is the primary goal. Maybe once in awhile the greater good becomes the primary objective, but not often.

I said nine paragraphs ago I would write about two subjects. As you can see, gerrymandering and its nefarious implications drew my passionate attention.  I will write next week about the minimum wage, which the General Assembling is considering raising from $10.10 to $15 an hour. An economist friend has provided me a reasoned analysis. I just need more time to digest it.

I hope that the General Assembly will think beyond parochial concerns and determine that a nonpartisan commission for the redistricting of congressional district makes sense for all voters. Currently, 21 states have some form of a non-partisan or bipartisan redistricting commission.

Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland.  Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He  also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer.  In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.

 

Letters to Editor

  1. Laurie Powers says

    Excellent article, and I totally agree. I’m still very upset that Jesse Colvin, an outstanding candidate who would have passionately and fairly represented everyone in our district, didn’t stand a chance because of the gerrymandered districts and Harris’ undeserved stronghold as a result. I’m a realist but also an optimist, and I hope as you do, that fairness will prevail in our state.

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