Critics denounce redistricting changes in Prince George’s as ‘outrageous,’ ‘appalling’

The Prince George’s County Council is divided over proposed changes to county council district boundaries. This image compares the districts proposed by an independent commission (outlined in red), and the alternative that was adopted by the council during a heated session last week (in black).

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A sharply divided Prince George’s County Council last week flung aside a council redistricting proposal that had been crafted by an independent commission.

By a vote of 6-4, lawmakers approved a broad set of changes at a tense, occasionally acrimonious online session that was marked by vigorous protests from lawmakers who claimed the alterations were hatched in secret and sprung on them at the last moment.

The amendments to the commission’s proposal were introduced by Councilmember Derrick Leon Davis (D-District 6). He acknowledged in an interview that he collaborated on the new map with some of his colleagues — enough to form a bare majority — and that he didn’t share his proposal with other councilmembers until the morning of the vote.

He forcefully defended the changes the council adopted, saying they achieved twin objectives — the uniting of municipalities and the creation of a majority Latino district.

By law, the 11-member Council must adopt a new map by Nov. 30. Prince George’s has nine council districts and two members serve at-large. The new map, which incorporates 2020 Census data, will be used in the 2022 elections and beyond.

If ultimately adopted, Davis’s proposed changes would affect many communities. They would also have significant ramifications for candidates who had already begun campaigns and would suddenly find themselves in new districts.

There is rampant speculation in county political circles about why certain individuals suddenly are likely to find themselves moved to a new district, though Davis insisted that such considerations were outside the purview of his allies.

Because the Prince George’s Council has conducted all of its business since the pandemic sitting as the Committee of the Whole, Thursday’s recommendation will be formally presented to the same panel, sitting as the County Council, on Tuesday. At that time, the council will decide what map to present at a public hearing next month.

The proposal is open to amendment, but councilmembers who found themselves on the short end of Thursday’s voting session hold out meager hope that their pleas will heeded — particularly given the way the majority seemed intent on limiting debate.

Multiple members of the council said they were stunned to find the new redistricting plan in their inbox just hours before the vote — and they angrily accused Council Chair Calvin S. Hawkins II (D-At Large) of ramming the new map through without public input or time to craft amendments.

The map crafted by a three-person citizen commission was overlaid on the screen by the Davis map, but the lines were blurry and it was difficult to determine all the details of the new plan.

Lawmakers attempted to offer amendments on the fly, and they begged to have the vote delayed, but their pleas where largely shot down by Hawkins.

When amendments were offered, they died on a 4-6 vote.

“I am so horrified that this is the path that this council has taken. This is unconscionable,” said Councilmember Jolene Ivey (D-District 5) during the debate. “There seems to be a plan to shove this map through.”

“These changes are dramatic,” said Councilmember Thomas E. Dernoga (D-District 1). “And they’re basically being pushed through by lame-duck councilmembers who don’t have to live with the consequences.”

“We need a better display of leadership from our leadership,” he added. “I’m just appalled.”

Davis’s proposal was supported by Hawkins, Vice-Chair Deni Taveras (D-District 2), Mel Franklin (D-At Large), Todd Turner (District 4) and Sydney J. Harrison (D-District 9).

They were opposed by Dernoga, Dannielle M. Glaros (D-District 3), Ivey and Monique Anderson-Walker (D-District 8). Rodney C. Streeter (D-District 7) was absent due to illness, colleagues said.

Hawkins, Davis and Turner — members of the majority who participated in the creation of the new map — made numerous attempts to limit amendments, end debate and force a vote. Through a spokeswoman, Hawkins declined to be interviewed.

Several lawmakers complained that the changes were made after the commission’s public hearings, depriving residents of the opportunity to provide feedback.

“This process was not transparent,” said Anderson-Walker. “I’m always available, but no one reached out to me. … It’s a huge change and it’s not reflective of the transparent process that we went through. It’s the 11th hour with these changes.”

Davis defended his proposal, saying it unites the county’s 27 municipalities and creates a majority-Latino district comprised of inner-Beltway communities close to the county’s border with Washington, D.C. Under his plan, District 2 would be 50.8% Hispanic. Taveras is the only Latino member of the Council, and she is term-limited.

Davis was unapologetic about his decision to keep some members of the council in the dark until the day of the vote.

“Every councilmember had the opportunity to develop a map, and I evidently was the only one that chose to go through that process,” he said in an interview. “What I was doing was skillfully using Roberts Rules of Order to advance the idea.”

“I do big things on purpose,” he added. “Maybe not everybody was focused on redistricting. … Councilmember Ivey and them, they seem to be caught off-guard an awful lot.”

Ivey rejected his assertion.

“It’s offensive for the council member who pushed for a property tax increase proposal to be put on the ballot last year — in deceitful language — is now pretending to be a skillful legislator,” she wrote. “Our residents deserve honesty and transparency. Council Member Derrick Leon Davis has not given his constituents the representation they deserve.”

She called the process so far “undemocratic” and “outrageous.”

Davis cast his proposed redrawing of council boundaries as “very basic,” but Dr. Nathaniel Persily, a Stanford law professor and redistricting consultant hired by the Council, offered a conflicting assessment.

“They’re very different,” he said of the two maps.

Critics see raw politics in new map

The commission that formulated the original map, following a series of public hearings, was chaired by Pastor James J. Robinson of Tree of Life Christian Ministries. Chamber of Commerce President David C. Harrington and former Prince George’s Community College President Dr. Charlene Mickens-Dukes also served on the panel.

Their map made few changes to the boundaries that have been use over the last decade. Most were tweaks to account for shifts in population, officials said.

The Davis map would make significant changes:

  • The City of College Park and the University of Maryland would be moved from District 3 into District 1, which is anchored in Laurel. City and school officials oppose this move, multiple officials said.
  • Most of South Laurel would be moved into District 4, which is anchored by the City of Bowie.
  • The City of Greenbelt would be moved into District 3.
  • Joint Base Andrews would be moved from District 8 to District 9.
  • The Davis proposal would also break apart the Port Towns communities, which have long wanted to be in a single district.
  • Other changes would impact all or parts of Adelphi, Landover Hills, Seat Pleasant, Forestville, Glendale, Seabrook, Upper Marlboro, District Heights, Peppermill Village, Summerfield, Morningside and Walker Mill.

The Davis map also has implications for several individuals who have launched council campaigns ahead of the June 28 primary.

Former councilmember Eric Olson (D) would be moved from District 3, a seat that is coming open due to term limits, into District 1, where he would be forced to run against Dernoga.

Activist Tamara Davis Brown, who lost to Harrison by 55 votes in 2018, would be moved out of District 9, preventing a rematch.

And labor advocate Krystal Oriadha, who fell 31 votes shy against Streeter three years ago, would be moved from District 7 to District 5, thwarting her attempt at a rematch.

Davis rejected the suggestion that his map was crafted to hurt or help specific candidates or incumbents.

But Olson, who said he has been door-knocking for months, believes otherwise. “It was done to cut me out of District 3,” he said.

“This is actually appalling, the way this was conducted,” Olson added. “It is a last-minute, radical gutting of our communities that have worked together. … It’s horrendous (and) people are outraged.”

Oriadha noted that Davis and his allies waited until after the commission’s hearings to spring their plan on the public.

“The changes that were made specifically impacted multiple potential candidates, and it’s hard to believe that that was done by accident,” she said. “It’s definitely politically motivated.”

Thursday’s raucous session exposed interpersonal tensions usually reserved for closed-door conversations. Dernoga said Davis’s constituents “have called him out for being disingenuous and sneaky.”

Davis shot back quickly: “It’s not often that you get characterized as sneaky by sneaky people.”

The full council will meet Tuesday at 10 a.m. to consider the committee’s plan. The map that emerges from Tuesday’s session will be the subject of a public hearing that is expected to occur in mid-November. Observers expect a large turnout.

The subsequent vote will not be subject to further amendments. If the map is approved, it will be used in the next three election cycles. If the Davis map is voted down, the county will use the map that the commission created.

Although Prince George’s is no stranger to rough-and-tumble politics, news of Thursday’s vote reverberated around the county. Many observers — including some members of the county’s General Assembly delegation — were surprised that so many changes were adopted the way they were.

“It’s just so dirty,” one lawmaker said.

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