Same metro region, different politics Md. candidates find Baltimore-Washington presents tough divide

August 17, 1998|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

By any road map or statistical compass, Maryland appears to be an easy state for a political candidate to navigate.

Most voters live in the Baltimore-Washington corridor that runs like a spine down the middle of the state. They commute to work on the same highways, fly out of the same airports, root for the same baseball team. They even get the same junk mail.

But while the Baltimore and Washington areas have blended into one large metropolitan region, Maryland politicians still find it surprisingly difficult to be everyone's neighbor.

"When I walk down the street here [in Towson], everyone knows me," says Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger. "If I drive less than an hour down the road, that won't happen."

Though barely 40 miles apart, Baltimore and Washington have separate media markets -- and political cultures. The divisions, along with the public's increasing indifference toward government, make it a hard sell for local politicians to become household names in both the Baltimore region and in Washington's Maryland suburbs.

By the time she quit last week, Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Eileen M. Rehrmann was confounded by her inability to introduce herself to the rest of Maryland. While the Harford County executive enjoyed relatively widespread name recognition close to home, a poll last month showed 57 percent of voters in Prince George's County, and 60 percent in Montgomery County, had never heard of her.

Charles I. Ecker, the challenger to Ellen R. Sauerbrey for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, is even more of an unknown around the state.

In Prince George's County, 74 percent of those surveyed could not identify Ecker, the executive from neighboring Howard County.

Rehrmann gave up her bid to unseat Gov. Parris N. Glendening after concluding that she could not raise the $1 million she needed to take her campaign on television. Especially critical were the Washington suburbs that make up much of Glendening's political base.

"Eileen Rehrmann could have been out here every day for six months, and still not be known by nearly enough people if she did not do TV," says Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan. "It's difficult enough running from a statewide perspective, but it's doubly difficult when you have two totally separate television, radio and newspaper markets."

For more than a century, Baltimore's preponderant Democratic majority gave its politicians the upper hand in statewide elections. Until Glendening's 1994 victory, Maryland had not elected a governor from the Washington suburbs since 1869.

Nowadays, however, Baltimore-area Democrats and Republicans have to spend much more time and money campaigning in the fast-growing, voter-rich Washington region.

In the past decade, while Baltimore's population dropped from 736,014 to 657,256, the Maryland counties closest to Washington flourished. Montgomery and Prince George's are now the state's largest jurisdictions, with populations of 826,766 and 770,633, respectively.

Costlier advertising

Baltimore politicos face a costly disadvantage: Advertising on Washington radio and television stations costs two to three times as much as in Baltimore.

Every television gross rating point in Baltimore costs $150, compared with $440 in Washington. And since Washington stations also broadcast to the District of Columbia and Northern Virginia, only 41 percent of the audience at any given time will be potential Maryland voters.

"It's clear a lot depends on whether you already have exposure in the Washington media market," Rehrmann concedes. "It makes it much easier from a cost perspective. Certainly, it's easier to be buying your way onto the scene in the Baltimore market."

Still, even a heavy advertising blitz is no guarantee of success, as Montgomery County millionaire Raymond F. Schoenke Jr. discovered. Schoenke, a Democrat, spent $1.8 million on commercials designed to reach 90 percent of Maryland voters, only to drop out of the governor's race in July.

Beyond media, the Baltimore-Washington corridor tends to split naturally because of allegiances to the two distinct cities. Baltimore is known for its working-class neighborhoods and crabs and beer, while Washington has its federal workers and gourmet coffee. They're as different as Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, which are 300 miles apart.

"Plenty of states have big geographical differences that lead to splits about the population makeup, ethnicity, rural vs. urban," says Ronald A. Faucheux, publisher of Campaigns & Elections, a national magazine for the campaign industry. "Here, it's more of a political, cultural split. It's more about occupation and social-economic status."

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