Are we near the end of Maryland's New Era?

December 18, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- When I first started writing about Maryland government and politics some 30 years ago, there was a sense that the state had just turned a corner of some sort, and was beginning a new era.

There were various reasons for this. For one thing, the echoes of John Kennedy's New Frontier hadn't yet died away. Politicians assumed that the modern public still wanted New, and took to talking incessantly about how they were going to deliver more newness. Many of us believed them.

Yet it wasn't just talk. Important changes were in fact occurring. Millard Tawes, an old-fashioned rural Democratic governor, was replaced in 1967 by Spiro Agnew, a suburban Republican who campaigned on a platform of modernizing Maryland in several far-reaching ways.

The new legislature was receptive to Agnew's reforms. The General Assembly which was elected in 1966 and seated in 1967 had just been reapportioned in compliance with the Supreme Court's directive that every legislator should represent the same number of people. ''One man, one vote,'' the principle was called in those ignorantly patriarchal days.

Opponents of the change had vainly cited the U.S. Senate, with its two senators per state, as a precedent for preserving representation of established geographic jurisdictions -- the counties -- in one house of the legislature. But this argument was brushed aside on the grounds that while the federal constitution provided for a United States Senate, it said nothing about the composition of state legislatures.

Before reapportionment, each of Maryland's 23 counties had had one state senator, and Baltimore had had six. But beginning in 1967, power had been dramatically moved to the suburbs. The big suburban counties now had several senators, while smaller rural counties were thrown into districts in which several of them shared a senator. Several influential rural politicians were thus eliminated from Annapolis.

Change in character

While all this was going on, Maryland itself was growing, homogenizing and becoming sociologically much less distinctive, and much more like other states. Increasingly, like other Americans, Marylanders by 1967 were transients, with more tenuous ties to their home communities than earlier generations had maintained.

This change, too, was reflected in Annapolis. Of the 142 members of the House of Delegates in 1967, 50 were born outside of Maryland. (I don't have at hand the statistics for the membership of the last pre-reapportionment Assembly, but I doubt more than two dozen of the 1963-67 House members were born out of state.) This process continues today; of the present 141 delegates, by my count 66 were born elsewhere.

Before about 1967, much of Maryland had been vaguely southern in its rhythms and its outlook. It seemed not at all odd in those days that Millard Tawes attended meetings of the

Southern Governors Conference. But by the mid-1960s, its regional disposition, if indeed it could be described at all, was becoming more northeastern. Agnew was no more a Southern governor than New York's Mario Cuomo, and the same could be said of those who followed him.

These sociological and political changes were in many ways advantageous for Maryland. In Annapolis, they made possible the enactment of measures that had been far too controversial for previous legislative generations to touch.

Agnew is remembered today for the corruption that brought him down and the right-wing rhetoric put in his mouth when he was Richard Nixon's vice president. But in his two years as governor he backed and signed into law major new state civil-rights bills designed to insure the equal treatment of all citizens; nationally noticed environmental legislation protecting Maryland wetlands; and the state's first graduated income tax, which proved a revenue bonanza that would fuel the expansion of state government for decades to come.

A generation ago

All that was 30 years ago, though, and some of the ideas and initiatives which seemed so new and exciting in the 1960s are now old and weary as the century's end approaches. The struggle for equal rights under the law has turned into a snarling dogfight over racial preferences. Environmental advocates have too often become self-righteous and in-your-face. Tax resistance growing much faster than tax revenues.

Well, are we nearing the end of the New Era which began in Maryland so confidently back in the Agnew days? If so, what will come next? In the current New Yorker, Roger Angell has dredged up a wonderful quote from the late V. S. Pritchett, one of the old century's best and most versatile writers. In a piece on Mark Twain, Pritchett observed: ''The peculiar power of American nostalgia is that it is not only harking back to something lost in the past, but suggests also the tragedy of a lost future.''

The old days were good ones, some of us recall with affectionate nostalgia, and maybe the older days were better yet. ''I should have died in 1960,'' said Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight, reflecting that perception, in a broadcast interview the other day.

If he had, he would have missed some exciting times. At some point, Bobby Knight, like Spiro Agnew, will be remembered by younger people as having lived in the good old days.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 12/18/97

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