Finding no good in government Cumberland: Surrounded by government-sponsored improvements, residents still have no praise for Washington.

August 02, 1996|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CUMBERLAND -- Over one of their nightly dinners at Geatz's restaurant, Josephine Ruggles and her friend Bonnie Wolfe offer their opinions of government.

"Pretty well disgusted with the whole thing," says Ruggles, digging into her chicken and corn.

For the next 20 minutes, the two elderly women offer a litany of criticisms ranging from party-line voting and partisan attacks to lucrative congressional pensions and welfare fraud. Asked if there's anything they like about government, both become silent.

"We're terrible, aren't we?" says Wolfe, sounding sheepish.

This is how deep the disaffection with government seems to be running in this Appalachian mountain town as the November election approaches. In interview after interview, people struggle find positive things to say about the men, women and institutions that run the country.

That residents here take such a dim view is all the more striking because Cumberland has benefited handsomely from government largess. And, at times, the evidence people cite to illustrate government incompetence or stupidity turns out to be simply false.

Lying deep in Maryland's panhandle, two hours from Washington, Cumberland seems a world away. It is a community of Victorian homes and needle-nosed church steeples where people think nothing of striking up conversations with strangers on the street.

Many here believe politicians are more interested in their own careers than the lot of their constituents. Some see government more as a hindrance than a help.

And when government does help people, they say, it is more often others - the poor, the rich, minorities - and not themselves.

But after manufacturing plants began closing in the 1970s and thousands of jobs disappeared, it was the public sector that came to the rescue, filling the void with myriad projects.

There is a new federal prison just south of town and a state prison under construction nearby. While no one is thrilled about having murderers and rapists as neighbors, most are glad to have the nearly 800 new jobs.

A golf course and convention center are being built just east of the city at Rocky Gap State Park to help develop a tourist economy. Earlier this year, the state approved $42 million for a parkway linking downtown Cumberland with the regional airport in West Virginia.

All this in a city with just 24,000 people.

"Without government help, there wouldn't be much here," says 46-year-old Cumberland native Greg Goss, sitting atop a backhoe working on the Rocky Gap golf course.

Discontent and dissent

At the root of people's discontent seems to be a deep distrust of political leaders. Some point to the declining civility of public discourse. They say they see politicians constantly creating false issues to gain advantage while failing to resolve real ones that matter to people like them.

Mary Frances Mason, 72, a retired nurse, finds the bickering in Washington overwhelming.

"I don't see that they are concerned with what's going on in the country and how to make it better," she says over lunch at "When Pigs Fly," a ribs and chicken place. "I imagine their whole day is spent trying to figure out how to get back at somebody."

Between bites of her meatloaf sandwich, she leans over the table, stares into the eyes of a reporter and adds: "Do you think those guys think about us at all?"

For all of its shortcomings, government can do wonderful things, Mason acknowledges. Back when two-lane U.S. 40 was the only east-west highway through Western Maryland, it used to take her perhaps five hours to drive through the mountains to Annapolis. Now with Interstate 68 complete, it takes her about three.

"The most outstanding thing I ever saw here was that road," she says.

Richard Arnold is the conductor of the Mountain Thunder, a steam train which runs between Frostburg and Cumberland. He also owns a small machine shop.

"We need to have more faith in the people that are [in government]," he said. "My quality of life is less than what it used to be because of a lack of jobs and the economy. I work two jobs. It seems like the money I make goes for [business] expenses and taxes and there is very little left over."

Al Bensley, a psychology professor at nearby Frostburg State University, sits on a picnic table in the shade of a maple tree overlooking the government-built lake at Rocky Gap while his 8-year-old son, Zack, and 12-year-old daughter, Kaitlin, swim.

"I think we tend to take for granted the benefits of our government," says Bensley, voicing a defense not often heard in these parts. "This park, for example."

This relaxing family outing, he points out, costs him nothing. To keep admission free, the park has taken on corporate sponsors. "A lot of what government does is invisible to people," he says.

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