They are a diverse band of activist athletes who believe in a level playing field for all, regardless of party affiliation. So they will run, pedal and paddle in an around-the-clock, more than 200-mile relay to mount pressure on Maryland’s power brokers to stop stacking the deck in the election of members of Congress and the state legislature.
These two dozen public advocates in jogging shorts and bicycle helmets include Democrats and Republicans. There’s a business owner and a dentist, a retired Navy officer and a working mom, a school teacher and a chemical engineer, a law enforcement officer and a construction company executive.
In what’s aptly called the “Gerrymander Meander,” they will travel a winding course Sept. 19-21 – on streets, trails, hills and creeks - with a petition calling for an end to gerrymandering, the partisan and closed-door drawing of congressional and state-legislative districts to favor one party over another.
“My real passion is running, not politics, but this is important,” said Paula Carrigan, 48, head coach of both the boys’ and girls’ cross country teams at Annapolis High School who earlier ran for “wounded warriors” and cancer research. “We want to get out the message: Gerrymandering is not fair.”
“We hope people notice what we’re doing and realize gerrymandering makes politicians more committed to their own party than their own constituents,” said Sailesh Patel, 50, who runs weekly and operates a hotel and conference center in Hagerstown.
Ross Heisman, 57, a Glen Burnie dentist who has competed in marathons for 20 years, said “It’s going to be fun. And hopefully it will do some good. We don’t want to tip things in favor of either party. We just want to make it fair to everyone.”
Sponsored by Common Cause Maryland, the League of Woman Voters of Maryland and the National Council of Jewish Women Annapolis Section, the “Gerrymander Meander” will be held in Maryland’s third congressional district, one of the most gerrymandered in the country.
The shape of this Democratic district – which zig-zags from Owings Mills to Towson to Baltimore to Columbia to Olney to Laurel to Annapolis - makes sense only to those politicians who want to hand pick voters so that they can keep their perks and power.
The “Gerrymander Meander” will begin with a press conference in Baltimore’s Roosevelt Park. It will end at the state house in Annapolis with the presentation of a petition to the gubernatorial candidates asking that gerrymandering be replaced with “a fair and open” process to draw congressional and state-legislative districts.
The first phase of this call-to-action meander, 206 miles, is set to go nonstop for 36 hours, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. the next day. The following morning the runners will complete the final legs, 19 miles to and around Annapolis. They will be joined for the last two miles by others who want to participate in the “fun run” back to the Statehouse. A crowd will welcome them back to Annapolis with a rally for redistricting reform, expected to start at about 1:45 p.m.
“This is a true exercise for democracy,” said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, 34, who competes in triathlons and raises twin daughters between serving as director of Common Cause Maryland.
“As sportsmen and sportswomen, we believe in a level playing field for all, regardless of party affiliation,” said Bevan-Dangel, set to run and bike a total of 38 miles over three days.
At 62, Nancy Soreng of the League of Women Voters of Maryland is down for a 15-mile stretch on her bike. She figures she’s ready, given she averages up to 75 miles a week on it. She is also hopeful that after years of setbacks, they will finally get somewhere on redistricting reform. “I’ve been frustrated by the lack of progress but excited about this opportunity to bring attention to the cause,” she said.
Gerrymandering is a rigged political system that dates back to 1812, is practiced nationwide and makes a mockery of democracy. It enables the state party in power to draw congressional districts, as well as those for state delegates and senators, after the census every 10 years. They do so to give their party a majority of its voters in as many districts as possible, setting the stage for Election Day victories.
Polls show bipartisan public support to end gerrymandering. State party leaders, however, generally back reform only if they are the ones being hurt by the current system. This has prevented much, if any, change.
Tom DeKornfeld, a retired Navy officer and a “Gerrymander Meander” runner, says Maryland Democratic leaders should step up. “As a life-long Democrat, I am not keen on embarrassing the Maryland Democratic Party,” DeKornfeld said. “But in our state, gerrymandering is an ugly issue for Democrats - because they are responsible for it. They need to do the right thing and make the redistricting process fair and open.”
His wife, Nina Fisher, an environmental writer, agrees. She will join her husband in the run.
“He didn’t ask me. I volunteered,” said Fisher. “Our political system is not working very well and this is a good way to draw attention to it.”
Jon Valentine, of Severna Park, a chemical engineer and freelance photographer, came up with the name of the relay, “Gerrymander Meander.” “The name is a natural fit to what we will be doing,” said Valentine, who will kayak across two stretches of the relay, Marley Creek and Bodkin Creek. ”We will be all over the place.”