Duncan still a stranger in the `Other Maryland'

July 12, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

DOUG DUNCAN of Montgomery County now steps into the Other Maryland, which is just beginning to learn his name. He traipses off to St. Mary's County one day, Baltimore County the next, every county in the state by September. Over the weekend, he stepped into Halethorpe, in southwest Baltimore County, where he stood in a green and flowery back yard as a few dozen people gathered to learn his politics as well as his identity.

Halethorpe's a stone's throw from Arbutus, where the young Bobby Ehrlich first discovered there were faraway places called Gilman and Princeton. Around there, a lot of people still think of Ehrlich as the neighborhood kid who made good. Duncan is discovering there's a faraway place called Halethorpe, where a lot of people still think of the Montgomery County executive as Doug Who?

Duncan, the semi-known Democratic candidate for governor, bestrides two worlds. He got a major reminder Sunday, as he stood in Jack Kammer's back yard. Kammer's a computer analyst who hosted the Duncan gathering at his home.

"This house," somebody said. It's a sweet little cottage on a street that Norman Rockwell might have painted. Inside are a couple of small bedrooms, a second-floor attic converted to a bedroom and work area, a small kitchen, and a garage out back. Kammer moved in a couple of years ago.

"How much did you pay?" asked a guy who couldn't mind his own business.

"A hundred twenty-one thousand," said Kammer.

"What would this cost in Montgomery County?" the same guy asked Duncan.

"Seven hundred thousand," said Duncan. "Maybe eight."

"You're kidding," the guy said. "I thought you'd say three, maybe $350,000."

"No," Duncan said. "For $350,000, you can't even get a condo in Montgomery County."

Thus does Duncan arrive in the Other Maryland, which is not entirely similar to his home turf. Montgomery County is one of the nation's plummiest areas. Everybody around Baltimore can't get over the explosion in housing prices here. But people from the D.C. suburbs look our way, and see the housing deals, and immediately think: such steals!

But the differences go beyond housing. Duncan arrives here from a county where the high school kids' SAT scores go through the roof. In the city of Baltimore, we do cartwheels when middle school kids learn their multiplication tables. In Montgomery County, Duncan boasts, they've now got more biotech firms doing business there than they do in 46 states, and they've created 85,000 jobs in the last decade -- "because," says Duncan, "one industry sparked so many others."

Why, he asks, have we spent three years in Annapolis obsessing over slot machines as economic salvation when the biotech field is blossoming and such jobs offer a real future?

"I know," Duncan told the Halethorpe gathering, "that Delaware and West Virginia have slots. Certain states do certain things. I want to compete for higher-paying jobs, not gambling jobs. Bob Ehrlich says we're anti-business. But he's the only person saying this, and I wish he'd stop it. This state was No. 3 in biotech jobs, and now we've slipped to No. 4 while we worry about slots. Businesses want an educated work force. We're in a knowledge-based economy. West Virginia's not our competition."

Montgomery County, he said, has been no walk in the park. When he took office, "there was a fear that our best days were behind us." Once-blossoming Silver Spring had fallen on bleak days, and some were writing it off. Now, he says, it's blossoming again with $2 billion of redevelopment going on.

Meanwhile, Montgomery County's vaunted public schools were trying to absorb thousands of kids who didn't speak English. Half of Maryland's Asians and Hispanics were there. But they're the same kids who have not only been absorbed but contributed to "the best SAT scores in our history," says Duncan.

To Baltimoreans, some of this sounds not just like some Other Maryland but some other planet. But it also makes us suspicious. For at least the last decade, we've been told the future belongs to the D.C. suburbs. We worry that a governor from there won't understand the Baltimore area's unique problems and its critical importance to the rest of the state.

Parris Glendening understood this uneasiness when he ran for governor. He campaigned around here by telling everybody how important Baltimore was. Unfortunately, he was telling crowds in Montgomery and Prince George's counties that Baltimore's day was over. He thought nobody would notice. Over eight years, nobody figured from which side of his mouth Glendening spoke more believably.

Duncan understands the divisions and recognizes he's "a hard sell" for Baltimoreans who have known the other likely gubernatorial contenders, Ehrlich and Mayor Martin O'Malley, for years. It's a small state, but Duncan, currently known to many voters as Doug Who?, has to bridge that large distance between Montgomery County and all those faraway places like Halethorpe.

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