Now that the 2010 Maryland general election is over, the thoughts of Howard County political activists are turning to the 2014 county elections. Adding an extra twist to the conversation is the upcoming task (occasioned by the 2010 census) of redrawing district lines for national, state, and county legislative districts. I have a particular interest in redistricting as it relates to the Howard County Council, and have been doing some research into past council redistricting efforts in an effort to understand how we came to the present point.
Rather than keep the results of that research to myself, I present it to you now in the form of a multi-part series on the history of Howard County Council redistricting, going all the way back to the beginning of modern Howard County politics at the creation of Columbia. We’ll learn how Howard County does council redistricting, why Howard County does council redistricting in the way it does, and indeed why Howard County has council districts (or, for that matter, a county council) in the first place.
It’s an entertaining and even exciting story (really!) that includes heated disputes between the Democratic and Republican parties, internal fights between factions within the Democratic party, epic battles for political power between Columbia and the rest of the county, both failed and successful petition drives and referendums, multiple court cases (including one featuring a former U.S. attorney general), provocative quotes from Howard County politicos past and present, and even a special guest appearance by a young Brian Meshkin.
The entire saga illustrates that there is truly nothing new under the sun when it comes to Howard County politics, and may provide some useful perspective as we head into the next round of redistricting controversies. Those with more knowledge of these matters than I are welcome to supplement or correct my account in the comments section, or suggest additional online historical resources.1
Here’s the complete list of posts and the years and events they cover:
Part 1, 1963-1969. The birth of Columbia and the beginning of modern Howard County politics.
Part 2, 1970-1974. Columbia’s rise to political power in an era of at-large council elections.
Part 3, 1975-1976. Political opposition to Columbia, and the first push to adopt council districts.
Part 4, 1977-1980. A setback to Columbia’s political power, and the second council district campaign.
Part 5, 1981-1982. The height of Democratic political dominance of Howard County in the at-large era.
Part 6, 1983-1984. The third and final campaign for council districts.
Part 7, January-October 1985. The first districting effort begins.
Part 8, November 1985-January 1986. The first districting effort concludes.
Part 9, February-August 1986. The first council campaigns waged on a district basis.
Part 10, September-December 1986. The first council elections held on a district basis.
Part 11, January-September 1990. The second set of council elections held on a district basis.
Part 12, October-December 1990. The second set of council elections held on a district basis (continued).
My post on Howard County’s population growth also provides some additional context.
Without further ado let’s begin:
1963-1964. Howard County is governed by three Republican commissioners who must look to the Maryland state legislature to enact local laws. A group of young Republicans (the How-Char-Go Committee) lobbies for home rule for the county. Lewis Nippard, a member of the committee, explains: We do not believe the county commissioner form of government can meet the needs of the future as the county population begins to increase toward astronomical levels. The effort attracts support from Democrats and nonpartisan groups, committees are formed and reports are made, and then partisan bickering over the schedule for a vote threatens to derail the project.
An effort to put the question on the ballot in 1964 goes forward, as a petition is circulated, signatures are challenged and ruled invalid, and the whole matter ends up in court. Finally the court orders the issue to be placed on the ballot (even as legal wrangling continues), with voters also asked to elect members of an official charter board.
In the November 1964 presidential general election Howard County sees a 90% turnout as the county joins the national LBJ landslide and votes for a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time in twenty years. The charter effort is collateral damage as voters follow the recommendation of the local Democratic organization and vote 53%-47% against creating a charter board.
1965-1966. Almost immediately after the 1964 general election another bipartisan effort gets underway to try to put the charter issue on the ballot. After more controversies and partisan wrangling the issue is again voted on in the November 1966 gubernatorial general election, and this time passes by a 72%-28% margin. Voters also elect five members of a charter board empowered to draft a charter for the county, and replace two of the three Republican county commissioners with Democrats.
November 1967. After a year of work, the charter board submits its third and final proposal for a new form of government in Howard County. The highly workable proposal (as charter board members refer to it) recommends that Howard County become a charter county, replacing the current system of three county commissioners with a county executive and a county council (with members elected county-wide). The Howard County Council would then be able enact its own legislation on matters affecting the county, instead of relying on the Maryland legislature. A vote on the proposal is scheduled for the November 1968 general election.
May-October 1968. After Maryland voters defeat a proposed revision to the Maryland constitution, organized opposition surfaces to the Howard County charter proposal, claiming that the charter board had belittled the intelligence of voters and worrying about concentration of power … on a local level. Despite the charter’s endorsement by the three sitting county commissioners and the Maryland state legislators for Howard County, concerns grow about the likelihood of its passing.
Meanwhile 23 candidates file to run in the primaries to be held for the new county executive and county council positions, including the Rev. John Holland, a moderate Republican who is president of the Howard County branch of the NAACP and the first Negro to file for a legislative office in the county, and only the second Negro ever to run for county office. On the Democratic side the ranks of candidates are swelled by a feud between state senator James Clark, Jr., and the United Democrats faction, which fields its own slate of candidates.2
November 1968. Turning out in large numbers, by a 57%-43% margin Howard County voters approve a new charter form of government for the county, replacing the previous system of three county commissioners by a County Executive and a five-person County Council. The charter section relevant to our topic reads as follows:3
Section 202. THE COUNTY COUNCIL. The legislative power of the County is vested in the County Council of Howard County which shall consist of five members who shall be elected from the County at large.
Voters also select Democratic and Republican candidates for a general election in January 1969 to fill three county council positions (with the other two seats to be filled by two of the previous county commissioners with time remaining on their terms).
January 1969. In the first general election under the new charter, Howard County voters elect Democrat Omar Jones as county executive by an almost 2-1 majority over Jack Larrimore, the current (and according to Jones, soon to be former) Howard County police chief. Larrimore indicates that he is not surprised by the result given the almost 2-1 Democratic edge in voter registration. Voters also elect three Democratic county council members, Edward Cochran, William Hanna, and J. Hugh Nichols, by substantial and almost identical majorities. (It’s just like a triple dead heat in the Kentucky Derby, marvels one party worker.) They join previous commissioner Alva Baker to form a 4-1 Democratic majority on the council, with fellow commissioner Charles Miller the only Republican.4
In part 2 of our series Columbia rises to political dominance in this era of at-large council elections.
UPDATE: For the convenience of readers who come here from the Patch story or otherwise, I’ve added a handy list of links to all the posts in this series. I’ll continue to update the list as I publish new posts.
- References in parentheses are to Baltimore Sun stories about Howard County politics. Stories up to 1985 are available online only as scanned PDF files from the Sun’s pay-per-view archive. (Those with more interest than money can also find old issues of the Sun on microfilm at the Howard County Central branch library and perhaps at others.) After 1990 stories can often be found elsewhere with a bit of Googling. (Note that there’s an apparent gap in the Sun’s online archive between 1985 and 1990.)
The Columbia Flier was first published in 1969 and no doubt carried lots of stories relevant to the events I’m recounting. However the Flier’s online archives go back only to 2000 and I didn’t feel like scrolling through multiple rolls of microfilm, so I haven’t consulted any Columbia Flier articles in my research.↩
- John Holland was not the only Republican ever to be associated with the Howard County NAACP; former state senator Robert Kittleman, father of current senator Allan Kittleman, also served as president of the Howard County branch.
I have no idea what the dispute between Clark and the United Democrats was about. It’s possible that the United Democrats were connected in some way to the United Democratic Club of Baltimore, an old-line political organization that was founded in 1922, fell on hard times like other traditional Baltimore Democratic political organizations, and was briefly revived before finally expiring.↩
Unfortunately to my knowledge the original 1968 version of the Howard County charter is not available online anywhere. However you can find a copy at the Howard County Library’s Central branch; just ask the helpful folks at the information desk.Thanks go to Jim Vannoy of the Howard County Office of Law for providing a PDF version of the original 1968 Howard County charter.
Edward Cochran plays a prominent role in the next chapter of this story; he’s also the father of Courtney Watson, the current Howard County Council member for Council District 1. J. Hugh Nichols also plays a significant role in this history as well. Charles Miller later had the Miller branch of the Howard County Library named after him (both the original building and the new one being built); although a fellow Republican, he is no relation to Warren Miller, current Maryland state delegate for District 9A.↩