On map of politics, Maryland is on left

State's leaders, policies tend toward liberal by most measures

November 28, 1999|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Maryland doesn't have an official motto, but it may be on the verge of winning an unofficial one -- America's Most Liberal State.

That is, of course, a mythical distinction as there is no precise way of measuring such a competition among the 50 states.

But there is little doubt that Maryland can be lumped with such liberal bastions as Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Minnesota -- and may well have taken a spot to their left on the overall political spectrum.

While all of those states have elected moderate or conservative Republicans to statewide office this decade, Maryland has elected nothing but left-leaning Democrats in statewide balloting.

On issues such as abortion, gun control, a "living wage" for low-income earners, affirmative action and, to some extent, taxes, Maryland finds itself on the left edge among the states.

That was never clearer than when the state's chief law enforcement officer, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., called last month for a virtual ban on the personal ownership of handguns.

Many of the state's political leaders dismissed Curran's proposal, not necessarily because they disagreed with it, but rather because it was politically untenable -- at least for now.

Similarly, even with the state budget overflowing with nearly $1 billion in excess revenue, the state's ranking Democratic leaders have summarily rejected calls for major tax cuts, noting a backlog of unmet state needs.

Such tendencies easily put Maryland somewhere in the top five of liberal states, said Donald F. Norris, a professor of policy sciences at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He stressed, though, that Maryland does show conservative tendencies in some areas, such as welfare reform or its relatively stingy funding of its colleges.

"You have to look at a variety of measures. In some, Maryland does very well and in others it doesn't," Norris said. "But it does elect liberal politicians."

Some Republican leaders in Maryland, eager to capture the allegiance of moderate swing voters, deride the state as the new Massachusetts.

"Clearly, Maryland is one of the most liberal states in the country, if not the most liberal," said Richard D. Bennett, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party and twice a losing statewide candidate here.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who has pursued an increasingly left-leaning agenda during his five years in office, agreed that the state stands near the top of the liberal list, although he said he prefers the less inflammatory term: "progressive."

"Maryland is a progressive state and has been for decades and decades," said Glendening, a longtime political science professor. "It's not that we're out of the mainstream, but that we're leaders."

Democrats' firm hold

The liberal hold on the state is hardly monolithic.

Ronald Reagan carried Maryland in 1984, conservative Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey came within a whisker of defeating Glendening to win the governor's office in 1994, and three of the state's eight members of the House of Representatives take a generally conservative tack on issues.

The GOP has also made gains in voter registration in recent years. And outside the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area, liberal elected officials are extremely rare.

But by many other measures, it's clear that a liberal-leaning Democratic Party has established a firm control on state affairs, one rivaled in few states:

Maryland Democrats generally withstood the Republican tidal wave that washed over much of the country in the early 1990s after a major recession. Most critically, Glendening held off Sauerbrey in 1994 -- albeit by only 6,000 votes.

"It was an overwhelming Republican year in 1994, and it was still not enough to lift the boats of Republicans in Maryland," said Bennett.

Liberal Massachusetts has had Republican governors throughout the 1990s.

In heavily Democratic Rhode Island, the GOP has held the governor's office since 1994 and filled four of the five statewide offices as recently as 1996, thanks in part to a banking crisis that enraged many voters.

And in Minnesota -- known for its progressive politics -- voters have elected conservative Republican Rod Grams to the U.S. Senate and the Reform Party's Jesse Ventura as governor.

The last Republican to carry Maryland was George Bush in 1988.

Ask the voters in Maryland and they tend to show liberal leanings. Last fall, exit polling in Maryland showed that a quarter of the voters used the dreaded "L-word" to identify their political philosophy. That roughly matched the numbers found in Vermont and Massachusetts.

Maryland voters overwhelmingly approved a 1988 referendum on gun control and a 1992 referendum on a liberal abortion-rights law.

In the Maryland General Assembly, Democrats occupy 73 percent of the 188 seats, the sixth-highest percentage among the 50 state legislatures -- trailing Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Arkansas and West Virginia.

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