Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Diversity Debate in Baltimore County

Baltimore County is ensconced in its decennial redistricting process, and citizens are offering their views to the county’s Redistricting Commission as to what the new County Council should look like.  The Patch’s Bryan Sears has been providing his usual excellent, comprehensive coverage to this process.

I was especially struck by one of Sears’ dispatches from April where he reports on Democratic Central Committee member Linda Dorsey-Walker’s testimony before the Commission. Walker argues passionately for the need to create a second majority minority councilmanic district, citing the county’s nearly 40 percent African American population as justification.

The county’s African American population – just 20.1 percent in 2000 – has grown exponentially in recent years. Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz’s overwhelming support in the county’s black precincts cemented his victory over Republican Ken Holt, who still won 40 more precincts than Kamenetz did. 

It also fueled the most shocking news coming out of the 2010 election:  Republican Bob Ehrlich, despite clearly winning the political sign war in his native Baltimore County, losing it by 1,500 votes to Governor O’Malley.

Walker is correct when she says that the county’s black population is surging. But the numbers she cites are wrong.

According to 2010 census data which Sears included in his article, the black population in Baltimore County is now 26.1 percent. That’s an almost 30 percent increase compared to 2000 – impressive to be sure, but nowhere near the doubling which Walker claims.

When I saw this article, I planned to blog it as yet another example of a member of Maryland’s political establishment making up things to serve partisan objectives. Then Governor Schaefer passed away and I got distracted.

I’m glad I did, as Walker’s numerical confusion was only the first shoe to drop in the county’s diversity debate.

Baltimore County GOP Chairman Tony Campbell testified in front of the Commission last week, arguing in favor of expanding the county’s minority representation.  This is not the first time Campbell has waded into this side of the swimming pool.

Shortly after he became GOP chairman, he backed an effort to throw the County GOP’s support behind a plan to make Democratic Councilman Ken Oliver the Council’s new chairman.  He did so without the support of most members of the GOP Central Committee or either of the Council’s two Republican members. Based on the feedback I received last week, Campbell did the same thing again.

Both Walker and Campbell are letting their own agendas and attitudes affect their judgment. When it comes to the thorny nexus of race and redistricting, it is advisable to set passions aside and look at the facts.

Fact: The Baltimore County Charter does not say anything about creating minority districts when a certain population threshold is reached.  

Fact:  Race and political reality were still driving factors when the lines of District 4 were redrawn in 2001.

Fact:  Each councilman represents about 15 percent of Baltimore County, population-wise. The black population of Baltimore County will no doubt exceed 30 percent by the time of the 2020 census.

Fact: Regardless of what the charter presently says, it will be difficult for Baltimore County’s ruling Democrats to ignore cries to create a second minority district once that threshold is crossed.

Fact: Creating majority minority districts often requires taking black voters out of the districts of white incumbent Democrats, resulting in districts that are more politically competitive.

Fact: The Democrats dominate Baltimore County politics, and can be expected to do so for the foreseeable future.

If I were Walker, I would be preparing for the fact that the County’s Democratic incumbents will be reluctant to embrace greater diversity at the cost of giving Republicans more districts where they can run competitively.

If I were Campbell, I would be looking at ways to leverage minority redistricting math in a way which benefits Republicans.  And, I would be thinking of the many ways that the ruling Democrats can screw Republicans out of achieving electoral relevance, perhaps by expanding the number of council seats. 

One thing is certain: No second majority minority district is going to be created this year. But it is inevitable.  When it happens, it presents an intriguing opportunity for two minority groups: Republicans trying to increase their voice, and African Americans looking to leverage their power in the Democratic Party. It will be interesting to see if these minorities can work together to achieve their common ends.


  1. I am all for diversity, as long as it doesn't include non- US citizens