For rural counties, a governor's party affiliation hardly matters

January 15, 2006|By TIM ROWLAND

Democrats, who outnumber Republicans in Annapolis something on the order of 2-1, say they are tired of being pushed around.

But weep not for this bullied majority, because Democrats have loudly announced that this is the year they will put down the hammer. They are, as Senate President Mike Miller said this week, about to "declare Independence Day."

Independence from what was left unsaid; certainly it isn't independence from sloganeering. And in large part, that's what this week's pep rally was all about, as Democrats warm up to an election in which they hope to take back something they believe they had no business losing in the first place, that being the governor's mansion.

They have to like their chances, not so much because of anything the Democrats have done, but because of what the Republican administration hasn't.


Heavily Republican Western Maryland virtually wept with joy at Bob Ehrlich's election, believing all local and rural woes over the years could be blamed on those arrogant, Democratic Beltway bullies. Further, Washington County went strong for Ehrlich in the election. Surely he would not forget such a loyal and supportive group as us.

Well - you know how it is. No sooner had he been elected than he served notice he was planning to make Interstate 81 a toll road. That might have been the ballgame right there.

To a Western Marylander, a highway toll is a tax wrapped in a regulation wrapped in an assault on freedom. And then when you top it off with a threat - "you don't pay no toll, you don't get no six-lane 81" - you have basically sent the local electorate wearily back to the drawing board.

That Ehrlich would be so tone deaf to the sentiments psyche of a rural county was not good news. To make matters worse, he's basically stiffed the county on all transportation issues. Being a rural, gasoline-using county, we know that we pay a disproportionate share of the transportation tax. And we also know that most of it for the foreseeable future will be going directly in to the suburban Intercounty Connector.

And don't give us the Edgewood/airport defense. The Edgewood Drive intersection was no gift; some local lawmakers had to swallow their pride and support Ehrlich's fee increases in exchange. And the governor clearly doesn't understand that the runway extension was a project that no one wanted, this side of Rod Shoop.

The governor also was late to understand how frustrated Western Maryland corrections officers have become with his administration's prison policies; how unsettled some religious conservatives have become over his obsession with slot-machine gambling; how angry rural landowners and car owners have become over the new septic tank tax and the increased car-registration tax; and how indignant tax hawks have become over Ehrlich's mountain of new fees, designed exclusively to circumvent the T-word.

These are generally groups that Democrats don't do well with anyway. But a Republican in a Democrat-majority state ignores them at his own risk. The danger isn't so much that they will defect to the Democratic candidate; the danger is that on election day they will find something more entertaining to do than go to the polls to support a man about whom they are unenthusiastic.

All this is not to say that Ehrlich has been a bad governor. In fact, he's probably been a typical governor - no better or worse than most others, Democrat or Republican. But he hasn't been the great voice and savior for Western Maryland that a lot of us were hoping he would be. The lesson is this: Inattention from Annapolis is not a partisan issue, inattention from Annapolis is a demographic issue.

No numbers, no favors.

Ehrlich didn't need to lavish us with gifts; all he needed to do was remember to send us flowers on our birthday. But we've barely had that. This recent spate of check-passing and prison pacifying has all the soul of a gift card to Food Lion - a box of candy to make up for staying out all night.

But Washington County voters will be asking these questions out of their governor: Where were you with a sensible plan to widen I-81? Where were you when Garden State Tanning and Fleetwood Industries were in trouble? Why has the university campus had to beg for operational cash? Where were you when the Hagerstown hospital fiasco was in need of state leadership? Why is clean water important enough to pass a flush tax, but not important enough to offer help to Hagerstown when its sewer plant began disgorging pollution into Antietam Creek?

Yes, we know how important Beltway politics is, and dispatching a seedy "Prince of Dumbness" to stick it to every hapless bureaucrat with a D after his name has got to be more fun than cleaning up messes left by a Democratic City Hall.

But it looks bad. It looks as if the governor is pulling a Sarbanes and will only come calling when he needs our votes.

As Maryland is politically and demographically construed, no Republican is likely to win in a landslide. To eke out a victory, a Republican must have an enthusiastic and well-cared-for base.

Plenty of people still like Ehrlich well enough around here, but notably fewer are willing to throw themselves under the bus for him as they would have done four years ago. On the planet that is Maryland politics, rural counties don't matter much. But come November, this governor may find out they matter more than he thought.

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