As we concluded part 6 of this series proponents of electing Howard County Council members by districts had finally achieved their goal of amending the county charter to require election by districts. In this post we’ll see how the council went about its appointed task of drawing up council district lines. Yes, I realize that I’m now at part 7 and am just now getting to the ostensible topic of this history. So, no more delays:

January–June 1985. Good news keeps coming for Howard County Republicans. After Ronald Reagan’s landslide 1984 victory, the election of Robert Kittleman as delegate, and the vote in favor of county council districts, Republicans find themselves leading Democrats in new voter registrations, as high school students throughout the county opt for the GOP. “We’re looking at a whole new generation of Republicans,” enthuses Central Committee chair Joan Athen.

The surge in Republican registered voters brings the Democratic registration advantage down to 1.9-to-1, with Athen’s goal to reduce it further to 1.5-to-1. With the new district scheme to be in place for the 1986 county council election, Athen’s hopes are high: “I predict we’ll have a minimum of two seats, and very possibly three seats, go Republican.” Democratic chair Daniel Collins acknowledges the county’s shift to the right, but warns Athen her projections are “premature” given that district lines haven’t yet been drawn.

When exactly those lines will be drawn becomes an open question, as June rolls around and the council has not yet started work on districting. Roger Marino of the Greater Howard County Chamber of Commerce asks the council to give “urgent consideration” to the districting effort, and recommends it appoint a citizens commission to provide advice. Council chair C. Vernon Gray promises work will start once the council finishes dealing with a comprehensive zoning initiative, with public hearings to follow before the end of the year.

Meanwhile visitors to the council’s booth at the Columbia City Fair are invited to try their own hand at drawing district lines, using pencils and tracing paper. The League of Women Voters also joins the fun, issuing a pamphlet “The Councilmanic Districting Game” that contains all the rules and data (including a list of precincts and their populations) that voters need to play. (As the pamphlet states, “Cutting up Howard county is not a Trivial Pursuit. No one has a Monopoly. Get involved now or be Sorry!”) Baltimore Sun columnist Thom Leverro asks readers to send in their own district maps, “crayons and finger paint . . . allowed”.1

In other news, county executive J. Hugh Nichols sets his eyes on the governor’s mansion, only to find a general lack of interest and several better-known and -funded candidates ahead of him, including Baltimore mayor William Donald Schaefer. Elizabeth Bobo formally declares her intent to run for county executive in 1986, with council members Ruth Keeton and Nichols ally James Clark also rumored as possibilities. Nichols waits on endorsing a successor (“I’m not going to name names”) and notes that only three local office holders have endorsed his own gubernatorial bid.

Frustrated by lack of Democratic support for his gubernatorial bid, Nichols drops out of the race. He’s besieged with requests from Republicans (including Vice President George H.W. Bush) that he become the credible gubernatorial candidate the Maryland GOP lacks, and announces he’s switching parties. A GOP insider notes that Nichols’s chances will depend on the Democratic candidate (“If it’s Don Schaefer Nichols might as well not run. . . . If it’s Steve Sachs, it’s a whole new ball game”) and expresses skepticism about Nichols receiving funding from the national Republican party (“[I] doubt that any serious national money will come in. . . . They’re always promising money.”).

(“Republicans are on a roll,” “Districting proponents urge Council start division,” “Get out a pencil and paper—and create a district,” “Nichols’s Bad Start,” “Race starts slowly for county executive,” “Nichols to join GOP, still eyeing State House”)

July 1985. The council starts working in earnest on redistricting, with clerical assistance from Anabel Fishman, who (unbeknownest to C. Vernon Gray and others) once headed an anti-districting advocacy group. Council members express confidence that the process can be done quickly and without undue worrying about political biases. Gray (who previously worked on a state redistricting commission) states “We did the entire state in about six months. I don’t think it’s going to take that long for the county.” Ruth Keeton adds, “There are bigger considerations than [politics] to take care of.”

Former Prince Georges county council member Gerard McDonough (a veteran of redistricting in that county) expresses skepticism: “They’re blowing smoke if they’re trying to preach that it’s not 100 percent pure politics.” However the council’s task is made easier because only two of the current council members (C. Vernon Gray and Lloyd Knowles) plan to run for re-election: James Clark is not planning to run again, while Elizabeth Bobo is running for county executive (to replace J. Hugh Nichols) and Ruth Keeton may do so as well.

Based on the 1980 census (which counted 118,572 people in Howard County), each of the five districts will have about 24,000 people, with up to a 5% variance allowed based on previous court rulings. Conventional wisdom is that Columbia will be divided into two districts (east and west of Route 29), with the remaining three districts being Ellicott City-Elkridge, western Howard, and southern Howard.2

(“Howard starts to redraw districts,” “Ex-districting foe is hired”)

September 1985. Anabel Fishman presents three proposed redistricting plans (labelled “A,” “B,” and “C”) to the council for its consideration. Plan A extends the western Howard district to include parts of Ellicott City south of Route 40 and west of Centennial Lane, and the western Columbia district to include Clarksville. Plan B puts all of Ellicott City in a single district, and lumps Elkridge in with Savage. Plan C has two Columbia districts and then divides western Howard between a northern district that takes in parts of Ellicott City and a southern district that runs from Glenelg through Kings Contrivance all the way to the Whiskey Bottom area near Laurel; the proposed fifth district includes Ellicott City, Elkridge, and Savage.

Unfortunately the council has to spend the next session correcting mistakes in the plans presented in the first session, including re-specifying districts by census tracts rather than by precincts. The Office of Planning and Zoning cautions the council to allow more time in future for preparing maps, while Lloyd Knowles floats the idea of ditching district numbers and naming districts based on colors (“Blue” or “Yellow”) or jewels (“Diamond” or “Pearl”). A fourth map is submitted for consideration, with two more maps promised before the field is winnowed down to three prior to public hearings.

Meanwhile C. Vernon Gray decides that the grass is electorally greener in east Columbia and moves from his Dorsey Hall home to a rented townhouse in Phelps Luck. “I have a lot of friends and volunteers on the east side of [US] 29,” Gray notes. Some question Gray’s eligibility, given that the charter amendment requires council members to live in their district for two years prior to their running for election, but Gray dismisses this argument, noting that there are as yet no districts for him to be a resident of.

(“3 plans offered for Howard’s voting districts,” “Districting session spent fixing previous mistakes,” “Councilman’s new home offers councilmanic view”)

October 1985. College student Michael Deets, who previously submitted his own districting proposals, rips into the council’s proposed districts, especially objecting to Plan A, which divides Elkridge in two, puts part of Owen Brown in a non-Columbia district, and includes Allview Estates in a district with west Columbia. Regarding Allview Estates in particular he asks, “Will the members of the County Council show no mercy to a community which for years fought the Columbia designation on their mailing address?”3

As it turns out Plan A is history, as the council approves three plans, B, E, and F, for further consideration, each with five color-coded districts: Yellow, Green, Orange, Blue, and Red (apparently adopting Lloyd Knowles’s previous suggestion). The Red District covering west Columbia is most crowded with potential candidates, with incumbents Knowles and Ruth Keeton facing a possible challenge from university professor Donald Carroll. C. Vernon Gray has the east Columbia Blue District all to himself, and the other three districts are wide open as Elizabeth Bobo and James Clark look to run for county executive. The proposed Green District covers western Howard, with the Yellow and Orange districts dividing up the rest of eastern Howard sans Columbia.

Plans B and E are generally similar, with Plan F taking a different approach: Its Yellow District includes only part of Ellicott City (lumping the rest in with western Howard in the Green district), and expands the Orange District in eastern and southeastern Howard all the way west to Highland. Plan F also sharply divides the two parties. County Republican chair Joan Athen’s “gut feeling” is that “[Plan] F would the only acceptable one of the three,” while Democratic Central Committee member James Kraft objects: “Plan F is out completely. . . . It holds the potential for three Republican seats.” Districting advocate D. Craig Horn sides with Athen in favoring Plan F, claiming that Plans B and E violate the charter requirement that a district have “common interest” both by having a Orange District that includes both Elkridge at the north and North Laurel in the south (with mostly warehouses in between), and (echoing Michael Deets) also by lumping Allview Estates in with western Columbia’s Red District.

(“Districting plan deemed faulty,” “Council gives nod to 5 districts, divided by 3 plans,” “Plan F is closest to charter goals”)

This post has run a bit long, so I’ll conclude the story of the first redistricting effort in part 8, as the council moves further through the alphabet in generating redistricting plans.

  1. The idea of inviting citizens to try their hand at redistricting might be worth updating for the Internet era. I plan to discuss this general topic in a future blog post once I finish this series. ↩︎

  2. In 1980 the population of the Columbia CDP was 52,518, or just over twice the ideal district size of 23,714. (See Census publication PC80-1-B22, General Population Characteristics, Maryland, Table 14. CDP stands for Census-Designated Place, a term used for unincorporated population centers.) However the Columbia CDP included (and includes) some areas not part of the Columbia planned community proper, so the actual Columbia population would have been somewhat less.

    By way of comparison, note that the population of the Ellicott City CDP in the 1980 census was 21,784, or just a bit smaller than the ideal district. ↩︎

  3. At some point Michael Deets was elected to the Howard County Republican Central Committee, and he will appear again in this series; however I don’t believe he was on the Central Committee in 1985. ↩︎