In the last eight years I've gotten some of the worst political representation of my life and also some of the best. The worst came from my congressman and the best came from my four state legislators.
My congressman tends to insulate himself from voters. My state legislators are different. They listen and respond better, even the ones from the "other" party. They don't always agree with me, but they do seem to care what their constituents think.
I've often asked myself, "Why such a difference?"
Here's a big part of the answer: My congressional district is gerrymandered and my state legislative district is not. The former has an odd shape, with parts that look like tentacles and barbells. The latter is regular and compact. The congressional district is safe for the incumbent, while the state legislative district is anything but safe.
And what does this have to do with the Bay?
The key to cleaning up the Bay is understanding problems at the local level and then fixing them at the local level. To do this, we need an engaged citizenry and good communication between voters and politicians.
According to Cindy Schwartz, executive director of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, gerrymandering hinders the efforts of local environmental groups. She says, "Gerrymandering makes people less likely to vote and reduces the responsiveness of politicians. It's just human nature."
As an example of how gerrymandering complicates the relationship between local environmentalists and politicians, consider Herring Run, a small watershed that covers the northeast corner of Baltimore City and a few adjoining neighborhoods in Baltimore County. It's roughly 8 miles long and 4 miles wide.
For the last 20 years or so, a small environmental group has worked to protect and restore Herring Run's ecosystems. Because of gerrymandering, the area it covers is represented by not one, not two, but three different US congressmen: Elijah Cummings (MD-7), Dutch Ruppersberger (MD-2) and John Sarbanes (MD-3).
The latter two districts are among the worst gerrymandered in the United States. The maps on this page illustrate this.
Ruppersberger and Sarbanes's districts look like quilts that were stitched from random neighborhoods and then run through a shredder. Imagine how difficult it must be for them to make sense of these geographies that they represent. Imagine, too, how hard it is for voters to figure out who their congressman is.
And imagine how much easier it would be to protect a local watershed like Herring Run if you could call a single legislator about a problem instead of three.
Getting a congressman to acknowledge the downside of gerrymandering is not easy. They tend to deny that there's a problem - or just shrug.
I asked Heather Molino, a communications staffer for Ruppersberger, whether gerrymandering makes things difficult for local environmental groups. She said, "No. Three members of Congress are better than one. Absolutely." By this logic, working through seven or eight congressman to resolve a local environmental problem would be even better.
Molino concluded, "There's no downside at all to the shape of Dutch's district. Gerrymandering does not hurt his ability to communicate with constituents."
Schwartz disagrees and would like to see some changes: "I think there needs to be more local participation in the [redistricting] process. My sense is that in Maryland it has happened behind closed doors. I'd like to see a process that allows transparent public participation."
So what's a voter or a small environmental group to do? How can we get away from gerrymandering, where politicians choose the voters, and get back to democracy as it should be: where voters choose the politicians?
Here are four steps that I recommend:
1. Understand the redistricting timetable in your state. The process will start soon, immediately after the results of the 2010 Census are published.
2. Learn who controls and influences redistricting at all three levels of government in your state: local council, state legislature and U.S. Congress.
3. Contact your legislators and the other players in the redistricting process. Tell them that gerrymandering is not acceptable. Ask them to change the rules in two ways. First, require compact, contiguous districts, as some states like Iowa do. Second, transfer responsibility for redistricting from partisan politicians to independent, bipartisan entities.
4. Pay attention as the process unfolds and be persistent.