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Former Democrat lawmaker who benefited from gerrymandering sees a better path

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Georgia isn't the only place where gerrymandering is a major political issue. At least 12 states have now completed their remapping process ahead of next year's midterm elections. And while Republican lawmakers dominate the process of redrawing district lines mainly because they control so many state legislatures, they're not the only ones. Maryland is one of the few states where Democrats have been able to consistently draw district lines in their favor. Thirty years ago, the state created a new majority African American district in Prince George's County, resulting in the election of former U.S. Representative Albert Wynn, who served in the U.S. House from 1993 to 2008. We wanted to talk to him about that process, so he's with us now. Albert Wynn, thank you so much for joining us.

ALBERT WYNN: My pleasure.

MARTIN: So if I remember this correctly, drawing district lines was always something that you were interested in and was always a part of your kind of political life. If I remember correctly, even as a citizen activist before you even got into elected office, you proposed a county-wide kind of redistricting plan in the county where you live, in Prince George's. Some people consider this a fairly arcane issue until it becomes important. How did you know at that early stage of your political life that, or even just your life as a citizen, that that was important to do?

WYNN: Well, you're right. It is fairly arcane unless you're interested in politics, and once you become interested in politics and government, it immediately becomes clear that where the lines are drawn determines in many instances who represent you. And so it is the essence of politics. It's the first rung, if you will, in terms of just kind of general participatory politics of, you know, how is your - where's your community situated?

MARTIN: The county you lived in was in transition, you know, frankly. It was going from a majority-white jurisdiction to a jurisdiction with a lot of African American residents. That was not always the easiest, you know, transition, you know, for a lot of reasons. So what was your goal in drawing those maps at the time or in your participation? Was it to increase minority representation or what was it?

WYNN: The objective of the map was to show that you could have a map that met all the constitutional requirements of being, you know, compact, contiguous districts, not splitting communities. And still, if you drew the lines well, create additional minority districts for our county council.

MARTIN: Well, now that you've - you are familiar with all of the criticisms - right? - of the of the process, which is that the politicians are picking their voters when it's supposed to be the other way around. Now, you were - you've been on both sides of it. I mean, you were a citizen activist at one point, and then you were an elected person, and now you're, you know, out of office again. How about that? I mean, have your feelings changed about it at all?

WYNN: Oh, absolutely. I think, for a lot of reasons, I would prefer that an independent commission draw lines. It would take the politics out of it. And when I say politics, the politics of individual incumbents and their interests. It would still retain all of the constitutional interest - one man, one vote, that sort of thing - but you would create more purple districts. See, what's happening now is we're creating hard red districts, hard blue districts and then wonder why we don't get compromise in Congress and why we have this gridlock. Well, if you had independent commissioners drawing these lines, you would get, as I said, purple lines where more moderate candidates would emerge because you would have to appeal not just to Democrats and the most extreme Democrats or the most extreme Republicans, you would have to appeal to folks in the center, moderates. And you get more moderate representation and they could come to Washington and, I think, accomplish a lot more.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, you know, some states, as you've pointed out, implement this independent, nonpartisan or bipartisan council to redraw maps more fairly. But we also know that states often ignore those commissions and draw maps in their favor. Is there an actual, you know, remedy to this? Because as we've pointed out, the people who tend to get involved in these kinds of projects are people who have time on their hands, who have a certain kind of expertise, right?

WYNN: Yeah.

MARTIN: And that just isn't something that most people can get involved in, right? So what would make a difference?

WYNN: It has - it's in the legislation. The legislation has to say that the final maps will be determined or voted upon by the commission. See, you can always appoint a commission and say, oh, go do redistricting and hold hearings and all of that. But we have the final vote. But in the most effective situations, you have a commission created statutorily and that commission has the authority to make the final decision. Their vote is final. I mean, having a commission as a fig leaf really doesn't do anything. It's only when your state or county law says the commission's vote or decision on the lines will be final. That's when it's meaningful. Each community's going to have to do that, either at the county level or at the state level.

MARTIN: That is former Congressman Albert Wynn. He represented Maryland's 4th Congressional District from 1993 to 2008. He's now in private practice. Congressman Wynn, thank you so much for talking with us and sharing your expertise around this.

WYNN: Enjoyed the conversation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.