Maryland Politics – Small State, But Is It Governable?

Posted on July 19, 2008


For a long time, I have held a two-part hypothesis about Maryland government.

First, Maryland is small enough to be flexible and efficient. Second, Maryland is rich enough to pay for its needs and address its problems. In other words, in this world of dysfunction and chaos, Maryland is one place that ought to be governable.

But I have been in denial about a serious barrier. For a small state, Maryland has a lot of regions and differences. How does democracy work in such a state?

I like Gov. Martin O’Malley’s slogan, “One Maryland.” But I don’t know if the people in Maryland’s regions believe it.

The great majority of Maryland’s people live in two great and very different metropolitan areas, Baltimore and Washington.

In its heyday, Baltimore was a major industrial city, a million people strong, and big enough to provide Maryland a center of gravity. To many in Maryland, Baltimore was “The City.” Montgomery and Prince Georges Counties were always in the metro D.C. orbit, but their combined population was not large enough to challenge The City.

In recent decades, there has been much talk about a unified Baltimore-Washington metropolis, joined by Interstate 95 and MARC trains, the connecting space filled by Columbia and the BWI complex. That vision of a BaltWash metropolis remains an illusion, I think.

Rather than growing together, the Baltimore and Washington areas seem to have grown apart. The City has lost so much industry and population that it no longer has the gravity to hold Maryland’s regions in orbit. Montgomery County has replaced Baltimore as the million-strong population capital of Maryland. Prince Georges County has grown nearly as populous as Montgomery. But Montgomery and Prince Georges, once thought of as one entity, the D.C. suburbs, have developed their own identities as they have matured. Add in fast-growing Charles County, and the D.C. suburban counties now constitute Maryland’s largest political region.

At the other end of I-95, Baltimore City and Baltimore County are divided in many ways. Baltimore City is as blue as any Blue State in America, but Baltimore County is purple. Is Baltimore County trending red or blue? No one knows from election to election. In addition, Baltimore County is divided into its west side (Catonsville, Randallstown), its north (Towson, Timonium) and its east (Essex, Dundalk). Does anyone in Catonsville know anyone in Dundalk? Do they have anything in common?

The outer ring of suburban counties seems far removed from either city. Frederick County, Carroll County and Harford County are red counties. Howard County, like Montgomery and Prince Georges, now has its own personality. Color Howard purple. Anne Arundel has at least three personalities: close-in Baltimore suburb in the north, affluent Annapolis-Bay Country in the middle, Southern Maryland in the south.

It’s hardly worth mentioning that the Eastern Shore was long isolated from the rest of Maryland. Even with the Bay Bridge, much of the shore remains a world of its own.

At the corners, St. Mary’s in the south and Cecil in the north seem remote from either Baltimore or Washington.

And then there’s Western Maryland. Hagerstown is firmly in Maryland. But look at a map of Maryland from Hancock west. Allegany and Garrett counties have more in common with Pennsylvania and West Virginia than they do with Maryland. This is not a criticism, just a fact. The western panhandle of Maryland and the panhandle of West Virginia could logically be combined into a new state.

You could look at all the Great Plains States or all the Rocky Mountain States and possibly not identify as many distinct regions as within the state of Maryland.

Of course, the contrasts within Maryland are never clearer than on the morning after an election. Montgomery, Prince Georges and Baltimore City are blue. Probably also Baltimore County, Howard County and Charles County. But most of the Maryland map, from Carroll County west, the Eastern Shore, and Southern Maryland (except Charles County) is red. The people in those counties are puzzled. They have a hard time understanding that an election is decided by the majority, and the majority lives in the Baltimore and D.C. regions.

Nothing in this post will surprise anyone who follows Maryland politics. But it raises a question that I have been avoiding: How does Maryland, with so many regional differences, cooperatively address the problems of the present and the future?

Is Maryland really governable, or are we destined to be dysfunctional? — Bernie Hayden