BRUNSWICK -- The wiry man roaming from one bar stool to the next has no teeth, so as he chats with the other old-timers at Uncle Willie's tavern, nobody can really tell what he's talking about. Best guess is it's about next month's election, given his choice of headgear tonight: a baseball cap that says "Harrington For Mayor" in big red letters.
Harrington is Joe Harrington, proprietor of this smoky tavern on what used to be the bustling main street of this southern Frederick County town. Back when the locomotive ruled this town, crews climbed off trains daily in search of an inviting tavern, an empty barstool and a stiff drink. Now Uncle Willie's is about the only sign of night life left along Potomac Street. The traffic light switches off at 8. Sidewalks are empty. The old rail yard is dark and still as a stadium when the home team's on the road.
The regulars at Uncle Willie's remember the old days. So does their host, who just now is behind the bar making chicken sandwiches for Malcolm Poist, who's on his fourth Budweiser but needs to get home soon with dinner in hand. So far, though, he shows no sign of leaving. He's not done telling the bartender why he should be mayor.
With his gray hair and shaggy mustache, Harrington resembles a grizzled baseball manager more than a mayoral candidate. The bar's logo -- an Uncle Sam-like character with a beer mug and cigar -- is tattooed conspicuously to his upper arm. He was born and raised and still lives proudly in Brunswick. Still works for the railroad. He's on the city council, even though some people complain he doesn't understand politics.
Not the people at Uncle Willie's. Here, everybody wants him to be mayor. In four weeks, they'll vote for him over the favorite, a man who says he'll use his political connections to help Brunswick move forward, bring in suburban-style developments and make folks in Frederick County respect this place again. They want a hometown boy back at the helm, to send a message that Brunswick, whatever its problems, whatever its reputation, isn't a place to be ashamed of.
They want Joe, the candidate who says he'll repair sidewalks and gutters and lead with the true understanding of a native.
"My opponent says he's made this his hometown," Harrington says, leaning over the bar. "But you can't make it your hometown. I live and breathe Brunswick. When the alma mater is played at the high school during a football game or graduation, I'm the one who gets goose bumps."
Right now, though, he's got to get Poist another beer.
The water tower, police cars and the town seal all carry an image of a steam engine and proclaim Brunswick "Home of the Iron Horse."
But it's been three decades now since "the town of hills, whores and liquor stores" saw its rail industry begin to decline. Potomac Street, the main drag, shows the result. Besides the fire hall and ambulance hall, there are still a few businesses, like King's Pizza and Jimmy Jake's Antiques, a beauty salon and the railroad museum, which advertises one of the biggest model train exhibits in the Northeast. But for every open business, it seems, there is a vacant storefront or home.
Still, on a typical summer day, this town of 5,300 can seem the quintessential American small town. There are 11 churches, one at just about every corner. Teen-agers returning from fishing along the Potomac River carry poles and backpacks, their hair wet from a quick dip in the water.
The police force -- 11 officers and squad cars strong -- deals with thieves, drug dealers and speeders but has not seen a homicide since 1996, when a 20-year-old man was stabbed and dumped off a bridge. Until it was tested, police were sure the blood they'd found was left by an injured deer. Nobody remembers the last murder before that.
Political campaigns here have an appealing simplicity, too. They take place in living rooms, not on television. Supporters chat in bars and at church, not at $1,000-a-plate dinners. And the issues are close to home. Voters here might not have strong opinions on Social Security reform, but you can bet they take sides on whether a 300-unit housing development should replace a farm on the edge of the town.
If it sometimes seems voters have lost faith, if not all interest, in national politics, in Brunswick, just an hour and a half from Baltimore or Washington, the old axiom that "all politics is local" is on full display.
This year, voters would choose between two city council members: Harrington, the hometown boy and bar owner, and Carroll Jones, a relative newcomer (he arrived 30 years ago) and well-connected politician. The two candidates would file to run for mayor on July 3, not quite a month before the Aug. 1 vote. Each would plan to spend less than $400 campaigning, until a last-minute fund-raiser brought Jones a whopping $1,900.