Regional voters tell politicians to tend to their own backyards

Frank A. DeFilippo

November 29, 1990|By Frank A. DeFilippo

BALTIMORE CITY has a noose around its neck.

The counties that surround the city have fallen largely into hands that are Republican, white and conservative. The vote that caused the turnabout was not so much racially tinged as it was a revolt of the middle class. These days pocketbooks and voting booths have a symbolic link in the minds of the voters.

Baltimore County elected its first Republican executive since 1962 as well as two GOP council members, the first since 1978. Anne Arundel County not only chose a Republican as county executive but also broke a 20-year Democratic hammerlock on the County Council by electing two GOP members. Howard County unpredictably elected a Republican executive as well as a GOP council member. Harford chose a Democrat as executive but balanced its government with a Republican majority on the County Council. In Carroll County, Republicans captured two of the three county commissioners as well as other offices.

Thus, of the six subdivisions that make up the Baltimore Regional Council of Governments (formerly the Regional Planning Council), only Baltimore city is majority black, overwhelmingly Democrat, almost totally impoverished and completely dependent.

The city is in deep dip. Judging by the size and the hostility of the vote in the suburbs around Baltimore, the voters appeared to be telling their newly chosen officials not to engage in any unnatural acts beyond their own county boundary lines. Put another way, make sure all politics stay local.

At a time of retrenchment, five suburban counties now have a stranglehold on the city. The white flight to the suburbs that began following World War II is starting to rear its ugly but determined head.

As the city's population declines, the suburban population swells, mainly because of affordable housing and low property taxes. Baltimore County has even developed its own job base.

Today's suburbanite is yesterday's city dweller. Demographics show that when people move they tend to move in straight lines. Therefore, the voters of Glen Burnie and Linthicum Heights are only a generation removed from South Baltimore, as the voters of Pikesville and Owings Mills are only a step away from lower Park Heights. Carroll County is West Baltimore extended and Harford County is the outer edge of East Baltimore.

Howard is schizophrenic, a mix of West Baltimore and the District of Columbia. Add to the confusion the fact that much of Howard co-exists in a congressional district with a chunk of Baltimore County, East Baltimore and South Baltimore.

It is important to remember that the good burghers who fled to the suburbs were also escaping the city's problems. Now urbanization is overtaking the counties and revisiting the transplanted suburbanites with the very city problems they fled crime, drugs and homelessness. The primal scream of the electorate was as much against urbanization as it was a protest against spending-spree government.

During the short reign of Dennis Rasmussen as chairman of the Regional Council of Governments, the goo-goo buzzword "regionalism" assumed added sparkle. Between the county and the city there were compacts, trash pacts, mutual container taxes, environmental discussions, transportation agreements, even seminars on regionalism and more under-the-table cooperative deals than anyone cares to mention. Now, regionalism is about to become a dirty word.

Two decades ago, the ethnic festivals were begun in Baltimore to homogenize the city as well as to lure suburbanites downtown. Harborplace is as much an attraction for locals as for out-of-towners; 50 percent of its repeat business comes from Baltimore County.

Yet at the same time, 20 years ago xenophobic county governments were rejecting extensions of the Metro system at a time when mass transportation was more of a racial issue than a transportation matter. Today, light rail is a welcome guest in most counties.

The wholesale rearrangement of county governments in austere times is unwelcome news for Baltimore city. Simply put, each of the five surrounding counties can go it alone; the city can't.

Instead of bitterness and hatred pulling the races farther apart as they have in the past, the catalyst this trip is economics. Money is making blacks blacker and whites whiter, and the division is sending thousands into leafy isolation in the rims around Baltimore, turning the city into an abandoned welfare colony.

For students of human motivation, understanding how the dynamics of the election and the retrenchment of county governments will affect the city is fairly predictable.

If the officials-elect are listening to the people who elected them, they will pull back from most talk of regional ventures with the city. Baltimore, always with a tambourine in its hand, has come to signify the great bottomless maw of big spending more than any other subdivision.

The attitudes of county governments will surely affect those of county delegations to Annapolis when it knuckles down to the nitty-gritty of voting for handouts and aid packages for the city.

Having read the same election returns, Gov. William Donald Schaefer humbled by the numbers in both the primary and general elections is not about to risk political capital by bucking county governments and legislators to help the city in a year when Schmoke is up for re-election.

The ring around Baltimore can only be erased by money. But Baltimore is facing tough times. The region is entering a period of stay-in-your-own-backyard politics.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes regularly on Maryland politics.

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