Marylanders revolt over taxes, growth

November 04, 1990|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,C. Fraser Smith is a member of The Sun's metropolitan staff.

Martha Baker looks out the back window of her house in a development called Cloverfields on Kent Island and sees sewage oozing to the surface of her lawn. She blames politicians, and she will send them a message on Tuesday. "I'll probably vote opposite of who's in there," she says.

Motorists inching along Route 216 in Howard County are greeted by a vanguard of the surging Republican Party. Roadside sign-wavers are there with an electoral wake-up call:

"Too Much Tension?

"Too Much Stress?

"Blame The Democrat Growth Mess."

In Montgomery County, Karen Kalla is helping lead environmental and civic groups into battle. She backs a ballot initiative that would limit property tax increases to the rate of inflation. "The fact of the matter is," says this 39-year-old mother of three, "there's a limit to what the property owner can feasibly pay. I can't pay any more. It's infuriating."

All over Maryland, the reputedly turned-off voter is rising up to vote against unchecked growth -- growth for the rich and higher taxes for the not-so-rich. Voters in three counties seem likely to approve initiatives this week that will sharply reduce government's ability to rely on property taxes. Public officials such as Montgomery County Executive Sidney Kramer, who came to symbolize wealthy development interests, were defeated in September's primary.

Last week, a Mason-Dixon poll even showed erosion of support for Gov. William Donald Schaefer, whose standing had been frozen in the 70 percent range in all kinds of political weather for more than six years. Mr. Schaefer has always promoted growth and development -- and has always profited from his successes in those areas.

Now, though, his strength appears to be fading as his challenger, Republican William S. Shepard, hammers him for spending too freely and for ruling by "fear and intimidation." Mr. Shepard was moving up, defying the political law of gravity twice: cutting into the Schaefer lead and doing it without money for television ads.

Nationally, students of the political process have detected "an anti-incumbent mood" among voters. The throw-'em-out movement in Maryland seems to be driven by concerns far more specific than opposition to incumbency. Growth, high taxes and a perception of arrogance seem to be the primary motivators.

LTC "These feelings are out there," says Brad Coker, president of Mason-Dixon, "but it seems to be hurting those candidates who had problems to begin with."

Already, groups of Marylanders have dismissed a relatively large number of state senators. Not a single state senator lost four years ago. Four were defeated in the September primary, and several others were taken to the brink of defeat. The abortion issue -- and the idea that the incumbents were arrogantly committed to their own viewpoints despite their constituents' views -- cost these veterans their jobs.

While low voter turnout in the primary was as distressing in Maryland as it has been in other states across the country, those who did vote had considerable power to create change.

Maryland's electorate in 1990 appears to be largely suburban, relatively affluent and white. In the inner city of Baltimore, few issues seemed to grasp the voters' attention, while in Montgomery, environmentalists joined civic associations and brand-new anti-tax committees to defeat a county executive and press for limitations on taxing.

Much of the activism seemed to go on outside the purview of parties. But there was party activism as well -- particularly among the resurgent Republicans.

Suffering from a 3-to-1 disadvantage in voter registration 10 years ago, the GOP now trails the Democrats by just over 2-to-1. In Anne Arundel, Howard, Baltimore, Montgomery and Harford counties, Republican candidates are threatening to make gains.

Numbers that tell the story of the Reagan-driven Republican rebound in Maryland can be found across the landscape:

With the exception of Baltimore and Prince George's County, Republicans out-registered or stayed virtually even with their rivals in virtually every county. For a time, Democrats conceded, they were reluctant to do any voter registration because they were coming back with too many new Republicans. During one reporting period between the summer of 1986 and the summer of 1990, Democrats in Charles County added a mere four new registered voters while Republicans piled on more than 3,000. Carroll County recently became a majority Republican subdivision.

GOP officials say the future is bright for them because their new members are younger. But they are likely to be new arrivals in Maryland and not likely to know much about the state or its politics.

In the meantime, though, they have tried -- particularly in Howard, Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties -- to capitalize on the mood of opposition to property tax increases, growth and the attitude of incumbents. The GOP's interests in these areas are almost perfectly congruent with the interests of the tax-cap advocates.

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