Despite the anxiety, they'll stay the course

In traditionally conservative Allegany County, concerns over war aren't likely to turn GOP tide

Voices of Maryland

November 05, 2006|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,Sun Reporter

The night of Oct. 26, the town of Frostburg threw its annual Halloween warm-up parade. School bands, cheerleaders and volunteer firefighters snaked down Main Street. Local politicians rode in pickup trucks, tossing candy into the crowd, talking sweet talk to one another.

"See you at the polls November 7th!" shouted Mike Wade, a write-in candidate for the Allegany Board of County Commissioners.

Frostburg State University students turned part of a municipal building into a haunted house for kids. Kelly Cochran, who helped organize the business association's pumpkin giveaway, stood nearby and talked about what has adults spooked this Halloween: Iraq.

"It's a tough, tough situation," she said. "I'm not really sorry we went to war. I'm not sure how I feel about us continuing."

Iraq weighs heavily on many minds here. But hearts beat strong with allegiance to God and country -- and the Republican Party. Anxiety about the war isn't likely to cause an avalanche of protest votes, many here say.

Cochran, a 49-year-old Republican with crossover tendencies, owns a pizza parlor. She's leaning toward voting for incumbent Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. because he's generally perceived as a friend of small business.

She's also tilting in the direction of Republican Michael S. Steele, currently Ehrlich's lieutenant governor, in the U.S. Senate race against Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin, a more vocal critic of the war.

The one local candidate who has made the war a central campaign issue is only on the fringe of Cochran's radar screen. Andrew Duck served 20 years in the Army, retiring in frustration after completing a stint as an intelligence officer in Iraq.

He now works for military contractor Northrop Grumman Corp. and is running as a Democrat for Congress in the sprawling 6th District, which encompasses chunks of Allegany and seven other counties.

Duck wants European allies to be more involved in Iraq, the Guantanamo Bay detention facility to be closed, and America to be energy independent within 10 years.

His opponent is seven-term U.S. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, 80, a 6th District institution. Bartlett, a pro-gun, anti-abortion conservative, is more temperate than Duck in criticizing the Bush administration's Iraq policy.

Despite her concerns, Cochran probably won't vote for Duck. It boils down to retail politics. Bartlett is a master of constituent relations.

"He's very visible," says Cochran. "I like that."

A CBS/New York Times poll shows 70 percent of the public is unhappy with the way the war is going. Despite that bubbling discontent, Allegany County is expected to stay the course on Election Day and, as usual, vote heavily Republican.

David Norman is a conservative talk-radio host on WCBC in Cumberland. He believes the Iraq war hasn't risen above background music in most folks' heads. "I would say they talk about it, but it's not a voting issue," he says.

"Typical to many Appalachian communities, you do have some degree of insularity and provincialism," observes John Bambacus, a former state senator who's a political science professor at Frostburg State. "There's a reluctance to speak out in many ways because you may hurt somebody's feelings. It's part of the political culture of the area."

A seminal event of the Iraq war had its roots here and provides a civics lesson about the risks of speaking out. The 372nd Military Police Company -- drawn from a National Guard unit based in Cresaptown -- was assigned to Abu Ghraib prison. Some of its members beat and humiliated Muslim inmates. Seven soldiers were court-martialed. Six are doing jail time.

Joe Darby belonged to the 372nd and leaked those infamous photographs documenting the abuse. He's now a civilian residing in an undisclosed location. The Army did a "security assessment" of his future prospects in greater Allegany County. Conclusion: not good.

"They said I shouldn't go home -- ever," Darby told an Army Times reporter in September.

Bernard Miltenberger, 42, works as a greenhouse manager and, for a time, served as treasurer of the Allegany County Republican party. Abu Ghraib was an embarrassment, and the street violence in Iraq is discouraging, he acknowledges. But nation building takes time.

"We have a fledgling democracy that's trying to get on its feet," Miltenberger says. "That's why they call it `war.' It's messy. I hate to say `stay the course.' But I don't want to say `cut and run' either."

He plans to hold firm and vote all Republican with the exception of one Democratic county commissioner.

Larry Neumark, by contrast, believes the war was a mistake and will vote accordingly. H won't publicly support any candidates because he's the Protestant chaplain at Frostburg State.

In the words of the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, chaplain of Yale University during the Vietnam War, Neumark is having a "lover's quarrel" with his government over Iraq.

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