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Debate over redistricting goes before Baltimore County Council Tuesday

Sheila Lewis, president of the Villa Nova Community Association, and Ryan Coleman, president of the Randallstown branch of the NAACP. Credit: John Lee
Sheila Lewis, president of the Villa Nova Community Association and Ryan Coleman, president of the Randallstown branch of the NAACP. Credit: John Lee

The Baltimore County Council holds a public hearing Tuesday on a controversial map that redraws the council’s seven districts.

Opponents of the map promise to sue if the council approves it because they say it would weaken the political power of minorities.

The Villa Nova neighborhood, tucked just inside the Beltway, off Liberty Road, southwest of Pikesville, would be split into two council districts, the second and the fourth, by the redistricting map being proposed by the county council.

Ryan Coleman, the president of the Randallstown Branch of the NAACP, describes it as a strong, picturesque, majority Black neighborhood that would have less political clout if it were divided.

“Because you split the vote, it seems that elected officials are not as concerned with the community because they do not have the political strength to sway an election either way,” Coleman said.

Sheila Lewis, the president of Villa Nova’s community association, believes fourth district Council Chairman Julian Jones is behind dividing up her neighborhood. She said Jones, who is Black, wants his district to remain overwhelmingly African American so he wants some of Villa Nova’s Black voters. The fourth district would be more than 70% Black under the redistricting map the county is considering.

“It’s all about keeping the Black vote packed in four,” Lewis said. “And to me that is a greater disadvantage because I believe it is better for there to be diversity in as many districts as possible.”

But Jones counters that you can’t just shift a few homes out of a district. That, he says, would cause a domino effect of splitting even more communities nearby since council districts must have around the same number of people in them.

“I’m just moving that problem down the street and exacerbating the problem,” Jones said.

The map proposed by the county council has one Black majority district, the fourth. It also makes the first district, which includes Catonsville, a district where all minorities combined make up a majority of the voters. But just barely. More than 49% of voters in the first would be white.

Opponents of the map say that’s not good enough because of the county’s changing demographics. About 30% of the population is Black and all minorities combined make up nearly 50% of its residents. They want two Black majority districts and a third district where whites are in the minority, said Sonia Shah with the Baltimore County Coalition for Fair Maps.

“The county council is committed to a map in which six of seven districts are dominated either by white majorities or white pluralities,” Shah said.

Council Chairman Jones said to give Shah what she wants, his district would have to be split to move Black voters out, and in turn communities in other districts would have to be divided up.

Jones said, “You go into Pikesville, you go into Arbutus and Catonsville, and you convince them that they want to split their communities in half for this goal, for this mission, and then you come back and see me.”

Justin Nalley, the Education Policy Analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland said having only the fourth district so overwhelmingly Black dilutes the county’s African American vote. He said the ACLU will sue if the proposed map is adopted.

“We’re hoping that by December 14, when the hearing for the map takes place, that there are some changes,” Nalley said. “But if not, then these maps are still in violation of the voting rights act.”

The Randallstown Branch of the NAACP plans to sue as well.

All seven council members support the proposed map, including Republican David Marks, who believes it can withstand a court challenge.

“I think the map provides ample opportunities for minority candidates to win elections throughout Baltimore County,” Marks said. “I think it meets the spirit of the voting rights act.”

Chairman Jones does not expect any major changes to the map.

“There may be another tweak or two,” Jones said.

One tweak being considered, according to Councilman Marks, involves the Carney neighborhood that currently would be split between his district, the fifth, and the third, represented by Republican Wade Kach.

“I am hearing some concerns from the Carney area,” Marks said. “Carney is split down the middle at Harford Road under the proposed maps.”

Marks is looking at how to unify as much of Carney as possible in the fifth district.

The proposed map puts Towson in one district, the sixth, where currently the county seat is divided among several districts. Towson residents have asked the council to unite them in one district.

However, former Maryland Secretary of State John Willis said Towson is not politically identifiable.

“There are no boundary lines to Towson,” Willis said. “You could ask 1,000 people to describe Towson and you’re going to get 1,000 different physical descriptions.”

The council is expected to vote on the map December 20.

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2
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