Politics & Media
Jan 18, 2010, 05:09AM

The Bog That Is Bay Politics

Maryland's House Rep Frank Kratovil (D–First District) is in for a tough reelection battle.

3725586008 904bb42245.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1


Under a bluebird sky, on a primeval bog known as the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Republican Andrew Harris announced his candidacy for Congress one more time with the promise to reject certain federal money that might benefit the First District and its constituents.

Harris, signing on for a rematch against incumbent Democrat Frank Kratovil, who defeated him two years ago, says he will not accept “earmarks,” which he characterized as “a waste of taxpayers money.” Harris did not mention, however, that the First District is heavily dependent on federal funds to sustain military operations, tourism, the seafood industry and other water activities such as boating and beaches and, most of all, the Chesapeake Bay. The district relies on federal funds no matter what they’re called. Earmarks are simply another name for pork. And pork is only pork when it’s in someone else’s district, otherwise at home it’s known as federal aid. Voters expect their elected officials to bring home the pork chop.

Harris, an ultra conservative member of the Maryland Senate from Baltimore County, is no doubt trying to hitchhike a ride to Congress on the phony populism of the “Teabagger” movement, which is organized and paid for by Washington lobbyists, along with his once and future patron, former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). Together they’d better take a closer look at the First District.

The district traverses the Eastern Shore and Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford Counties. The Eastern Shore, in addition to its beaches and yacht basins, contains some of Maryland’s most impoverished areas where government money is always a welcome injection. More to the point, the seafood industry relies on the Chesapeake Bay for its product as well as its livelihood. And the health of the Bay, in turn, depends on the gobs of federal and state funds that underwrite the various manifestations of its clean-ups and cleansings. And federal and state governments together underwrite the replenishment of Ocean City’s eroded beaches not to mention the maintenance of Assateague Island.

Anne Arundel County also relies on the Bay to sustain its tourism and boating activities, which depend, in part, on federal funding to keep the waterway clean and navigable. What’s more, Anne Arundel is host to the U.S. Naval Academy as well as Fort Meade and a world-wide military communications network on the shores of the Bay—all major employers in the county and all supported by federal largesse.

Harford County is host to Aberdeen Proving Grounds, the county’s major employer, which is growing even larger because of the military base realignment (BRAC). Again, this is federal money in motion which Harris seems to unapologetically detest. Baltimore County, too, is home to many defense contractors who rely on government money to stay afloat and keep First District constituents employed. What Harris doesn’t seem to understand—or doesn’t want to accept—is that when government gets money, government spends money. Tax collections (and borrowed money) come right back to the taxpayers in one form or another.

On the political side of the equation, there are local and national observers who believe that Kratovil is the most endangered member of Congress because of the makeup and mentality of the First District, especially the quirky Eastern Shore component. And anyone who’s curious as to what relationship Cockeysville has with, say Cambridge or Easton, should ask Former Gov. Parris Glendening. He drew the redistricting map out of spite. But Kratovil’s status on life support may be overstating the case.

The idiosyncratic First District is a trail of haunting images: Rep. Thomas Johnson (D) sent off to jail in a savings and loan scandal; Rep. Rogers C. B. Morton (R) abandoning the office for a higher calling to the president’s cabinet; Morton’s chief aide and successor in Congress, William Mills (R), putting a gun to his chest and ending his life; Rep. Robert Bauman (R) arrested for having sex with a 16-year-old male prostitute; State Sen. Roy Dyson (D) getting the heave-ho after his top aide jumped from a New York hotel ledge; and, finally, the seat being stabilized for 18 years by a self-effacing pro-environment Republican, former combat marine, house painter and school teacher, Wayne Gilchrest.

That is, until Ehrlich decided to butt in and get even with Gilchrest for testifying before the General Assembly against slot machines, which Ehrlich considered not only a knife in the back but a slap in the face. Forgetting, of course, that Gilchrest’s constituents at the time opposed slot machines anywhere near Ocean City, the sand-dune economic dynamo of the lower Eastern Shore. For that, Ehrlich cost the Republicans a seat in Congress.

The history of the First District Congressional seat is that it carries with it longevity and security until and if the inhabitant really behaves badly, especially in public. There’s no evidence that Kratovil has. Nor has he voted in a way that would give major offense to his constituents. He was even let off the hook to vote against health care reform when House Democrats collared enough votes to excuse him. And two years ago, Republican Gilchrest endorsed and campaigned for Kratovil in the general election against Harris. In 2008, Kratovil defeated Harris 177,065 (49.1 percent) to 174,213 (48.3 percent) in a hotly contested race that attracted national attention and money.

And to top it all off, Kratovil also enjoys the support of Republican Morton’s widow, Anne Morton Kimberly, of Talbot County. She endorsed Democrat Kratovil and even sponsored a fundraiser for him at her farm. She applauds his stance on the environment, especially the Chesapeake Bay (her late husband was secretary of the interior under Richard M. Nixon.)

What’s more, there is also the question of whether State Sen. E. J. Pipkin, from the Eastern Shore side of the district, will re-enter the Republican primary against Harris as he did two years ago in an effort to carry their Senate enmity into the Congressional race. And it’s questionable whether Ehrlich would carry the Eastern Shore if he ran for governor after his intrusion that cost Gilchrest and the Republicans his seat.

Kratovil has acquired some important and powerful Maryland friends and allies in Congress: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, originally from Baltimore; House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, of Prince George’s County, with whom Kratovil is politically close; and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, of Montgomery County, who is head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which pumped more than $1 million into Kratovil’s campaign two years ago and will likely do so again. They’re not about to cut loose a fellow Marylander and a friendly Democrat.

Voters in the First District are almost evenly distributed on both sides of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, with Harris from the Western side of the district and Kratovil from the Eastern wedge. Outliers such as Harris are generally unwelcome on the encapsulated Eastern Shore, which over the years had occasionally threatened to secede from Maryland and create its own independent duchy.

Both sides of the district are equally conservative, even though registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 2000 voters—187,619 to 185,464, although the comparison might not compute in crossover Maryland in general elections. There are also 67,539 independent voters in the district.

But on the Eastern Shore side of the district, party lines blur and party affiliation counts for less than family and local tradition. The western side of the warren contains some of the most conservative areas of Baltimore County, i.e., Cockeysville and Perry Hall. Kratovil carried every Eastern Shore County in 2008 while Harris carried the three counties on the western side of the district. Kratovil was state’s attorney for Queen Anne’s County and an Eastern Shore homeboy. Harris is a Johns Hopkins Hospital anesthesiologist.

President George W. Bush, for example, carried the First District by sizeable margins in 2000 and 2004, even though on the Democratic side Al Gore and John Kerry romped to majorities to carry Maryland and keep it true-blue. In 2008, President Barack Obama carried only one Eastern Shore county, Kent, while carrying the state by 1.629 million votes (61.9 percent) to Sen. John McCain’s 959,862 votes (36.5 percent.) Kratovil apparently received no coattail benefit from Obama. The district is 85 percent white and 11 percent black.

The late segregationist Gov. George C. Wallace once observed, “Whenever I get depressed I visit the Eastern Shore of Maryland and it cheers me up.” But that was a long time ago.

  • True, the days of George Wallace were a long time ago (before I was born), but a lot of Democratic House seats are in play, save those in very liberal or gerrymandered districts.

    Responses to this comment

Register or Login to leave a comment