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Baltimore County Council begins to grapple with redistricting

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John Lee
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Towson Historic Courthouse. Credit: John Lee

Following a blistering public hearing in which several dozen people spoke out against a proposed redistricting plan for council districts, the Baltimore County Council now gets about the business of settling on a map on which at least five of them can agree.

It takes a super majority of five members on the seven-member council to pass a redistricting map, and that puts the three members of the Republican minority on the council in a rare position where they have leverage.

Republican Councilman David Marks wants a map that will have bipartisan support and keep the county out of court.

“I want to do everything possible to avoid an unelected judge drawing the county council map,” Marks said

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland is threatening to take the county to court if it passes the proposed map, which has only one majority Black council district, although nearly 30% of the county’s population is African American. The ACLU believes it would violate the federal Voting Rights Act. It, along with the NAACP and others have proposed maps that would create a second Black majority district.

Republican Councilman Wade Kach said he, Marks, and fellow GOP member Todd Crandell are working to come up with a map that meets the requirements of the Voting Rights Act.

Democratic Council Chairman Julian Jones said he is not worried about the threat of a lawsuit over redistricting.

“Not to say that I don’t care, and of course we don’t want to spend money on litigation if we don’t have to, but at the end of the day we have to do what we have to do and other people have to do what they have to do,” he said.

Jones is the sole Black member on the seven-member council. His western Baltimore County district runs roughly south and west of I-795 and includes Randallstown. It is more than 70% Black.

Opponents of the proposed redistricting map say it illegally packs Black voters in one district which dilutes their political power. Thousands of those voters would need to be shifted to another council district to create a second one with a Black majority.

Jones said he supports doing that.

“The question is how do we get it done.”

Jones and other council members said they can redraw the lines and create a second Black majority council district. But to do that, they would have to split communities that currently have one council member into two council districts.

“Even if you somehow were to split my district in half, you still have to come up with other halves,” Jones said. “And those other halves would have to come either from the Catonsville area or the Pikesville area.”

Councilman Kach agrees.

“It’s going to require splitting of areas like Catonsville, which I don’t think anyone really wants to see but there’s no other way to do it.”

But Democratic Councilman Tom Quirk, who represents Catonsville, opposes that.

“Splitting core communities to me is just not the right approach.”

Quirk said communities like Catonsville benefit from having just one council member representing them.

“I think you get a stronger focus,” Quirk said. “And I think out of that long term I also think there’s a better chance of getting more capital and investment as well.”

Democratic Councilman Izzy Patoka represents the second district, which includes Pikesville. He wants a second Black majority district but is hesitant to break up communities.

“I don’t think that’s healthy for communities so we need to decipher where it makes sense and where it doesn’t make sense,” Patoka said.

At Tuesday night’s public hearing on redistricting, a number of people complained that the current proposed map splits Towson between council districts.

So, this is the challenge: How do you create a council district map with a second Black majority district that at least five members of the council can support? Council members are firing up their mapmaking software and manipulating district lines to try to arrive at a consensus map.

“We all talk to one another,” said Councilman Marks. “I don’t want this to be partisan, but on the other hand redistricting all around the country can become very political. We don’t want this to become a partisan map.”

The council has until the end of January to get the job done.

“We’re going to have to pass something,” Chairman Jones said. “The charter’s clear. My job is to say we will work on it until we get it done.”

Jones hopes redistricting legislation can be introduced at the council’s November 15 meeting. He is not ruling out calling a special meeting between now and then so the council can discuss it.

Council members Cathy Bevins and Todd Crandell declined to be interviewed for this story.

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