Contrasts emerge in poll

Under liberal veneer is divided state with conservative streak

January 14, 2001|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

At first blush, a statewide poll released last week makes Marylanders out to be a strikingly liberal bunch, willing to support gay rights, ban the sale of handguns and sacrifice jobs to preserve the environment.

But beneath that left-leaning veneer is a deeply divided state, one that at times comes together in support of particular issues only through unlikely alliances.

"There are big differences among the regions," says Donald F. Norris, a policy sciences professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and a close observer of the state's politics. "If Maryland supports a liberal agenda, it's because it's a state marked by big pockets of liberal voters."

For decades, Maryland's eastern and western ends have been known for their conservative character, with voters frequently sending Republican representatives to the state General Assembly dominated by Democrats from the population centers along the Interstate 95 corridor.

These days, those conservative voters have been joined by a growing number of like-minded residents of the Baltimore-Washington corridor, most notably in Anne Arundel and Howard counties.

The Maryland Poll - conducted by Potomac Survey Research in Bethesda for The Sun and two Washington-area news outlets, the Gazette newspapers and WTOP radio - found that registered voters in those two suburban counties have acquired a far more conservative character than the urban centers they divide.

Health coverage

For example, every area of Maryland except Anne Arundel and Howard counties supported the idea of the state's paying for health insurance for anyone who doesn't have private coverage.

Also, those two counties were nearly the only ones to support a state tax credit for private or parochial school tuition.

The only other geographic area to support such credits was Baltimore, which has the state's largest share of private school enrollment.

"I guess I used to be more liberal, even almost socialist, in my beliefs, but now that I have an income I find myself thinking more conservatively," says Janet Liimatta, 28, of Millersville in Anne Arundel County, a teacher and registered Democrat who voted for George W. Bush in November's election. "I feel like we're very heavily taxed compared to other states, and with this surplus, the money should go back to the people.

"It's not the state's money to spend - it's our money," Liimatta says.

Asked the most important issue for the General Assembly and the governor to tackle during the 90-day legislative session that began Wednesday, Marylanders gave widely varying answers - even those who live only 30 miles apart and appear to share many core political values.

Improving the public schools was the first or second priority in every region of the state in The Maryland Poll, as it is in almost every poll in Maryland and the nation.

But, on the Eastern Shore - as well as in Anne Arundel and Howard counties - concerns about taxes ranked almost as high, with voters such as Joseph Klisiewicz of Parsonsburg saying that Maryland needs a change.

"Why don't they lighten up a little?" asks Klisiewicz, 59, who retired from computer services at IBM and now drives a school bus for Wicomico County. "Once they have the money, it's gone, so we're not going to get the surplus back, but they don't have to keep taking so much."

Elsewhere in Maryland, concerns about taxes were far lower. Statewide, the poll found that even though Maryland has a large budget surplus, not even a third of voters think it ought to be used for a tax cut.

For the poll, Potomac Survey Research Inc. interviewed 1,203 voters by phone between Dec. 27 and Jan. 4, a random sample that was balanced statewide by geography, gender, age, ethnicity and political affiliation. The margin of error is 2.8 percentage points. For smaller samples within the poll, such as the answers by voters within particular counties, the margins of error are higher.

Topping the concerns of voters in both Baltimore and Baltimore County was a topic in which some success has been reported in recent months: crime. Though statistics suggest that the Baltimore area might be safer - with the city recording fewer than 300 murders last year for the first time in a decade - voters placed it first on their list of state priorities, outranking even education.

"When I grew up, we had recreation centers to play in, but now the kids don't have any place to go, so they get involved in crime," says George McCullers, 58, a cabinet maker who grew up in Baltimore's Cherry Hill neighborhood and lives in nearby Westport. "If you look at the statistics, things are a little better, but the drugs are still going into the neighborhoods, and there's still too much crime around."

Traffic woes

In Maryland's other metropolitan area - the Washington suburbs - traffic congestion, an issue that has troubled voters for years, has emerged as the strongest negative influence on the quality of life.

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