Is the po­lit­i­cal war on ru­ral Mary­land dead?

Maryland Independent - - News - By J.F. MEILS Cap­i­tal News Service

AN­NAPO­LIS — In 2009, for­mer Mary­land Gov. Martin O’Mal­ley closed the vis­i­tor cen­ter at the Sidel­ing Hill, the sym­bolic gate­way to Western Mary­land, as a cost-sav­ing ef­fort.

Some saw the move as per­sonal, or at least con­fir­ma­tion of how the for­mer gov­er­nor felt about the state’s ru­ral coun­ties.

“We had only two vis­i­tor cen­ters that were closed in the en­tire state un­der O’Mal­ley,” said Wil­liam Valen­tine, an Al­le­gany County com­mis­sioner. “It wasn’t too hard to fig­ure out what hap­pened.”

Cur­rent Gov. Larry Ho­gan re­opened the Sidel­ing Hill Vis­i­tor Cen­ter in 2015.

Ear­lier this year when Ho­gan took the stage in An­napo­lis at P.A.C.E., a con­fer­ence ded­i­cated to Western Mary­land, he opened with the fol­low­ing: “When I was sworn in two years ago, I said the war on ru­ral Mary­land was over — and I meant what I said.”

Ho­gan’s sur­prise elec­tion in 2014 hap­pened in part be­cause of an un­ex­pected surge of ru­ral vot­ers that re­peated for Don­ald Trump two years later. And while Ho­gan has paid more at­ten­tion to ru­ral Mary­lan­ders than his pre­de­ces­sor, some politi­cians in ru­ral ar­eas say he has strug­gled to de­liver what they want most — more money for in­fra­struc­ture and less reg­u­la­tion from An­napo­lis.

Part of Ho­gan’s chal­lenge is struc­tural, but it’s also about per­cep­tion. Mostly ur­ban and sub­ur­ban Democrats hold 70 per­cent of the seats in the Mary­land Se­nate and 64 per­cent in the House of Del­e­gates, enough to over­ride a veto. This is be­cause the vast ma­jor­ity of the state’s pop­u­la­tion is clus­tered near Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and Bal­ti­more, and tend to vote Demo­cratic.

“For eight years [un­der O’Mal­ley], peo­ple in ru­ral Mary­land felt dis­en­fran­chised, felt that An­napo­lis was out of step with them,” said Chris Shank, Ho­gan’s chief leg­isla­tive of­fi­cer. “And some in ru­ral Mary­land were fall­ing more and more be­hind.”

How much of that should be blamed on ur­ban and sub­ur­ban leg­is­la­tors is de­bat­able.

“Ev­ery­one from all the dif­fer­ent re­gions of the state can make a case for why they are get­ting the short end of any deal out of An­napo­lis,” said Sen. Richard Madaleno (D-Mont­gomery), who is openly con­sid­er­ing a run against Ho­gan in 2018. “The grass is al­ways greener in some­one else’s yard.”

The Ho­gan-Trump Nexis?

When Ho­gan won Mary­land’s gu­ber­na­to­rial race in 2014, it was a bona fide po­lit­i­cal up­set — and some­thing of a beat­ing. Ho­gan not only bested his Demo­cratic op­po­nent — then-Lt. Gov. An­thony Brown — he did so by al­most 4 per­cent in a state where there are more than twice as many reg­is­tered Democrats as Repub­li­cans.

Brown’s loss was widely at­trib­uted to an unin­spir­ing cam­paign por­trayed by Repub­li­cans as a third term for O’Mal­ley, with whom Brown served. In the clos­ing days of Brown’s cam­paign, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama and for­mer Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton, as well as their high-pro­file wives, showed up to stump for him.

Brown also out­spent Ho­gan in the gen­eral elec­tion by about $1.5 mil­lion (com­bin­ing party and in­di­vid­ual cam­paign spend­ing). Money aside, Brown could have won the state without a sin­gle Re­pub­li­can vote if the 950,000 or so Democrats who came out in 2014 sim­ply voted for him in greater num­bers.

Two years later, Hil­lary Clin­ton would lose the pres­i­dency to Don­ald Trump for many of the same is­sues with turnout and the lack of a clear mes­sage.

Ho­gan’s vic­tory in Mary­land is of­ten at­trib­uted to a low turnout in an off-year elec­tion com­bined with a boom­let in the ru­ral vote and a big num­ber from Anne Arun­del, his home county.

“Turnout over­all stunk in 2014,” said Todd Eberly, pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence and pub­lic pol­icy at St. Mary’s Col­lege of Mary­land.

But that’s not quite what the num­bers be­lie. Statewide turnout in 2014 was only about 2,000 votes fewer than in 2010. And Ho­gan got only 9,000 votes more in Anne Arun­del than for­mer Re­pub­li­can Gov. Robert Ehrlich, who lost to O’Mal­ley in 2010.

How­ever, Ho­gan did run up the count in ru­ral Mary­land.

Com­pared to Ehrlich’s los­ing ef­fort in 2010, Ho­gan did 17 per­cent bet­ter in Western Mary­land (Gar­rett, Al­le­gany and Wash­ing­ton coun­ties) and 14 per­cent bet­ter in the north­ern sub­urbs and ex­urbs of Fred­er­ick, Har­ford, Car­roll and Bal­ti­more coun­ties. The mid-to-lower Eastern Shore coun­ties came out for Ho­gan by 5 per­cent more than Ehrlich. But South­ern Mary­land came out strong­est for Ho­gan, par­tic­u­larly in Calvert and St. Mary’s, which went for him by 31 per­cent more than they did for Ehrlich in 2010.

Put to­gether, those coun­ties de­liv­ered 63,000 more votes to Ho­gan than they did to Ehrlich. Ho­gan beat Brown by 65,510 votes.

Ho­gan ran on a plat­form of cut­ting taxes and re­duc­ing both spend­ing and reg­u­la­tion.

He has ar­guably strug­gled to de­liver on those prom­ises. But he has come through for ru­ral ar­eas in other ways, in­clud­ing $14 mil­lion for down­town re­vi­tal­iza­tion ef­forts in Hager­stown, Cum­ber­land and Sal­is­bur y.

While the gov­er­nor can point to this and other small vic­to­ries as proof of his prom­ise to “end the war on ru­ral Mary­land,” state and lo­cal politi­cians from ru­ral coun­ties uni­ver­sally say they need more. And they want less re­sis­tance from Democrats in An­napo­lis, who they see at best as ig­no­rant of their is­sues.

While some of those Democrats are sym­pa­thetic to the unique con­cerns of ru­ral ar­eas, they also say there are lim­its to what they can do.

“They are con­stantly ring­ing the bell in the Demo­cratic cau­cus and more broadly to folks in the se­nate that we have to put more pri­or­ity on smaller, ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties and they’re right, en­tirely right,” said Sen. Jim Ros­apepe (D-Prince Ge­orge’s, Anne Arun­del).

There is also sim­ple ma­jor­ity pol­i­tics to con­sider and, some say, games­man­ship around ru­ral is­sues.

“It’s in some of my col­league’s po­lit­i­cal self-in­ter­est to make out their con­stituency as the vic­tim,” Madaleno said.

To be a ru­ral politi­cian

Rep­re­sent­ing ru­ral ar­eas in Mary­land tends to mean climbing one of two up­hill paths: at­tempt­ing to win con­ces­sions in An­napo­lis or manag­ing coun­ties, cities and towns without much help from it.

“The game is mostly leg­isla­tive,” said James Gim­pel, pro­fes­sor of gov­ern­ment and pol­i­tics at Univer­sity of Mary­land. “You as­sign as many ben­e­fits to the win­ning coali­tion as pos­si­ble and ex­clude the losers as much and as many as pos­si­ble.”

Most ru­ral politi­cians in Mary­land un­der­stand this po­lit­i­cal cal­cu­lus per­fectly. It af­fects most if not all the de­ci­sions they make.

“We’re out here with­er­ing on the vine,” said Gar­rett County Com­mis­sioner Paul Ed­wards (R), who is the son of Sen. Ge­orge Ed­wards (R-Gar­rett, Al­le­gany, Wash­ing­ton). “We asked for $1.3 mil­lion from the leg­is­la­ture to help keep our schools open, but we’re not gonna get it be­cause the big­ger coun­ties are go­ing to think that any money com­ing to us is go­ing to be taken from them.”

And some of those big­ger coun­ties would be right, espe­cially Mont­gomery County, which pays more than $3.3 bil­lion in state and lo­cal taxes, but gets back less than $1 bil­lion in state aid. Coun­ties like Caro­line and Som­er­set re­ceive more than dou­ble in state aid what they con­trib­ute in non-fed­eral taxes.

Of­ten it’s not about win­ning or los­ing fi­nan­cially for ru­ral rep­re­sen­ta­tives, it’s just get­ting a seat at the ta­ble.

“I think [Ho­gan’s] been as sen­si­tive to ru­ral coun­ties as he can in light of the fact he doesn’t have a lot of money,” said Fred­er­ick County Coun­cil­man Bud Otis (R).

Al­most uni­ver­sally in ru­ral ar­eas, lo­cal politi­cians say the Ho­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion has made a pri­or­ity of be­ing re­spon­sive. When asked what the gov­er­nor has specif­i­cally done for them, sim­ply lis­ten­ing is al­most al­ways the first thing men­tioned.

“The big thing he’s been open to is chang­ing the at­mos­phere that the state wasn’t as busi­ness friendly as it could be,” said Howard County Ex­ec­u­tive Steven Glass­man (R). “Just the cus­tomer service in some of the state de­part­ments to work with the lo­cal politi­cians has helped.”

But that doesn’t mean Ho­gan has the means — read: money — to get big things done for ru­ral Mary­land. And that forces many a Re­pub­li­can in An­napo­lis to go beg­ging leg­isla­tively, search­ing for com­mon ground that gets washed away a bit more each year by par­ti­san­ship.

“I learned real quick when I first got here [in An­napo­lis] — I know how to count,” said Sen. Ed­wards. “Some­times you have to com­pro­mise to get things done. A lot of times you have to play de­fense.”

Be­yond party, what fu­els the di­vide in the state­house, ac­cord­ing to nu­mer­ous ru­ral Repub­li­cans, is a lack of fa­mil­iar­ity with the nu­ances of their is­sues. The leg­isla­tive rub tends to come down to the key dif­fer­ence be­tween ur­ban and ru­ral ar­eas: re­strain­ing growth ver­sus en­cour­ag­ing it.

“So many peo­ple in An­napo­lis have this vi­sion that one size fits all. It does not,” said Dorchester County Coun­cil­man Ricky Travers (D). “The im­pacts of some of th­ese bills are ab­so­lutely hor­ren­dous on ru­ral Mary­land.”

Two of the big­gest is­sues for ru­ral politi­cians are a pair of reg­u­la­tions that af­fect new res­i­den­tial con­struc­tion. Th­ese in­clude the so-called BAT sep­tic re­quire­ments in crit­i­cal ar­eas, or those sur­round­ing the Ch­e­sa­peake Bay, and the law that dic­tates all new homes in the state must have in­door fire-sup­pres­sion sprin­klers.

The cost, ac­cord­ing to most ru­ral law­mak­ers, puts new homes out of reach for young buy­ers.

“Ev­ery­thing out­side of a town is well and sep­tic,” said Caro­line County Com­mis­sioner Wil­bur Le­ven­good (R). “The new sep­tic and sprin­kler laws have made a house al­most un­touch­able to a young fam­ily. If they get a job here, they’re mov­ing to Delaware.”

What ru­ral wants

Cuts to the state’s high­way user funds were made to ev­ery county in 2009. For most coun­ties, those funds would never re­turn.

“In 2008, we got $4 mil­lion in high­way user funds,” said Valen­tine. “The last cou­ple of years, we got $400,000. There are 526 miles of road in Al­le­gany County.”

Caro­line County, whose en­tire an­nual bud­get is about $44 mil­lion, ex­pe­ri­enced a sim­i­lar cut as Al­le­gany from their high­way money in 2009. “If you take $4 mil­lion in cash away from our roads, that’s a real sti­fling,” said Le­ven­good. “We’ve cut a lot. It’s hurt a lot of peo­ple, but we’ve man­aged to keep our roads open.”

Part of be­ing a ru­ral politi­cian in a small county is not hav­ing the lux­ury of hid­ing.

“When we’re out there deal­ing with em­ploy­ees, lay­ing them off, th­ese are peo­ple we live with. We see them day in and day out, so it’s tough,” said Travers.

The prob­lems be­gin to feel cir­cu­lar. If you can’t fix your roads, it’s hard to en­tice busi­ness. Without busi­ness or af­ford­able homes, you can’t keep young peo­ple or hope to at­tract new ones. If your pop­u­la­tion is de­creas­ing, so is your tax base — which leaves you with less money to main­tain your roads.

Some coun­ties and mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties are begin­ning to ex­per­i­ment with new ap­proaches, par­tic­u­larly in the eco­nomic sphere, but for some the per­ceived stream of ob­sta­cles from An­napo­lis is sim­ply too much to over­come.

“It’s all pol­i­tics,” said Paul Ed­wards. “I don’t care what any­one says.”

CNS PHOTO BY J.F. MEILS

Wil­liam Valen­tine, an Al­le­gany County com­mis­sioner, sits in his of­fice at Carl J. Valen­tine & Son, the plumb­ing, heat­ing and air con­di­tion­ing busi­ness started by his fa­ther in 1947.

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