Thursday, October 13, 2011

O'Malley's Lament

I do not envy Martin O'Malley. As chair of the Democratic Governor's Association and presidential aspirant O'Malley is under tremendous pressure to deliver at least one new Democratic House seat to bolster his party's chances of reclaiming the House of Representatives in 2012. The map proposed by his Redistricting Commission bowed to that national pressure.

But the only way to create 7 Democratic districts in Maryland (a state where Republicans routinely win 40% of the statewide vote and dominate every region of the state except central Maryland) is to take the substantial African-American vote in Baltimore City, Montgomery County and Prince Georges County and use those voters to dilute the Republican areas of the state. There is clear evidence of this in the recently proposed map.

Baltimore City voters are used to offset Republican votes in Baltimore County, Howard County, Harford County and Anne Arundel County. Montgomery County voters offset western Maryland (and Anne Arundel, and Baltimore County) and Prince Georges voters dilute Southern Maryland (and Anne Arundel).

This is an effective way to gerrymander a state, but the result is reduced minority voting power. Maryland's population is over 40% minority, but only two of the state's eight Congressional districts are majority-minority (the 4th and 7th). Even though the minority population has grown in the past decade, the new map would not create any additional majority-minority districts. Worse, it would weaken minority voting strength in five districts. Minority vote strength in the two majority-minority districts (the 4th and 7th) would decline slightly and in the 8th district minority vote strength would fall dramatically from roughly 37% to around 25% - all a result of the gerrymandering needed to turn Roscoe Bartlett's red 6th district marginally blue.  The 6th district goes from being 10% minority to 22% minority. 

Maryland's 1st district would be 15% minority, the 2nd 37% minority, the 3rd 29% minority, and the 5th 44% minority.

But African-American community leaders in Montgomery and Prince Georges counties are not happy with the manner in which the minority population has been divided and used to create Democratic districts. It's a sad reality of American politics that minority candidates, especially African-American candidates, are rarely elected from non majority-minority districts. So all of those districts with 29%, 37% or 44% minority membership simply rely on minority voters to elect white Democrats.

Given Maryland's population and the geographic concentration of minority voters, the state should be home to at least 3, if not 4, majority-minority districts. In light of that, it's easy to understand why minority community leaders are upset with consolation prize of two districts.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prevents redistricting that disadvantages minority voters and weakens their political power - based on that, some community leaders have threatened to file a lawsuit to stop the proposed map. The problem for O'Malley is the simple fact that you cannot create 3 or 4 majority-minority districts in Maryland without creating 2 or 3 Republican districts as a byproduct. You can either have more Democrats, but fewer minority representatives or more minority representatives, but fewer Democrats.

This brings us to the other pressure on O'Malley. O'Malley wants to be President - there can be little doubt about that. But to build a foundation for a presidential run, he needs a record of accomplishment as governor - this has eluded him thus far. O'Malley has been a competent and responsible manager of the state, but he needs a record of legislative accomplishment. O'Malley has chosen to take more risks in the coming legislative session by endorsing high profile issues like marriage equality. Marriage equality died in the prior legislative session when an odd alliance of African-American delegates, conservative Democrats, and Republicans joined to kill the measure.

As a voting bloc, African-American senators and delegates wield tremendous power in the General Assembly, and their opposition to O'Malley's agenda (coupled with Assembly Republicans and conservatives) could make the difference between a failed or successful second term. O'Malley knows this. As such, he cannot afford to ignore the rising tide of opposition to the map proposed by his advisory commission.

O'Malley faces a difficult choice - does he represent the interests of the national Democratic party and deliver them an additional seat in Congress (and risk alienating a key party voting bloc in Maryland) or does he represent the interests of the people of Maryland a present a map that respects the growing minority presence in the state (and risk alienating national party leaders whose support he will need if he runs for president).

In his speech before the 2004 Democratic convention O'Malley said "to govern is to choose." Today, he faces a very difficult choice and his decision will likely tell us much about his ambition and whether his focus remains on Maryland or his future plans. And he must decide soon.