Essex-Middle River: an area to dump on? Politics: The GOP message appeals to wary residents who feel they have been abused or neglected by government.


If the cynical adage about bureaucrats had been written in the Essex and Middle River neighborhoods of eastern Baltimore County, it might have gone like this:

We're from the government and we're here to dump on you.

"This area has been steamrolled for years. There is no trust in government down here," said Will Gerard, a retired certified public accountant who runs a bed-and-breakfast on the Middle River near Hogpen Creek, one of the inlets brimming with expensive yachts.

Need a place for contaminated dredge spoil? How about Hart-Miller Island at the mouth of the Middle River? Need a place for social experimentation, a place to move low-income city residents into suburbia? How about Walnut Grove?

Need county water and sewer service in Bowley's Quarters? Maybe later.

Until recently, Maryland's 6th District -- a refuge for well-to-do, deck shoe types as well as for the poor and unemployed -- was ignored, according to Gerard and others. In the past four years, government has pumped in about $140 million for public improvements.

But Gerard remains hungry for political change -- in the governor's mansion and locally. An election here unfolds against a certain history, a history of perceived neglect and abuse.

If a pent-up conservative tide is ready to sweep Maryland, its source would include Essex-Middle River, where Republicans have recently won County Council and legislative races and where GOP candidates for governor have done well for years.

In 1994, Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey won a 5,300-vote majority in the 6th District in a race she lost statewide by 5,993 votes of 1.4 million cast.

This year, 6th District Del. Kenneth C. Holt, a Republican, has a fair chance of grabbing the Senate seat held for 20 years by Democrat Michael J. Collins. Turnout in the primary was low, but could be much higher in the Nov. 3 general election as a result of the Senate race. Candidate lawn signs rival sailboat masts for space on the local horizon.

While Collins has been popular enough to be elected five times, Gerard said he epitomizes the need for change.

"He said he just wants to be our senator. He doesn't want to work at it. He just wants to be it," Gerard said with studied sarcasm.

The Holt-Collins contest is regarded as too close to call -- as close as the gubernatorial battle between Sauerbrey and Gov. Parris N. Glendening. Both races seem to represent the struggle between the Democratic Party's generational grip on public office in Maryland and the growing Republican presence in areas such as Essex-Middle River.

As it has statewide, the Democratic lead over Republicans in voter registration in the 6th District has dropped from more than 3-to-1 to about 2-to-1 -- but it is a margin that overstates Democratic power. Sauerbrey won nearly all of these precincts in 1994, and seems likely to do so again.

Holt said voters he meets while campaigning door to door volunteer their disgust at Glendening's decisions, first to abandon President Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky matter and then, observing the president's continuing popularity, to embrace him.

Collins has apparently heard similar criticisms. He hopes the governor will stay away during the campaign. If Collins needs help in turning back Holt, his fortunes could rest with County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who wants to maintain as much Democratic representation as he can in Annapolis. Some say Ruppersberger's efforts on Collins' behalf are unhappy news for Glendening's camp, which suspects that many Collins backers will vote for Sauerbrey.

Essex-Middle River's mistrust of government has been fueled in part by a 20-year struggle against dumping at Hart-Miller Island. On Wednesday, the state announced its plan for restoring a portion of the site for further use by picnickers, campers, boaters, bird-watchers and other visitors.

More than 100 community representatives listened politely during a presentation about the plan at Chesapeake High School but worried that officials would break promises again. They fear the state will continue to use the site with its 44-foot-high containment wall -- even though state law bars it.

"We seem to be the dumping area for the state of Maryland," said Waring Justice, a longtime activist.

It's part of a pattern, said Carl Maynard, president of the Back River Neck Peninsula Association. Eight million dollars provided by the state to minimize the effects of raising the dike walls to 44 feet, he said, never made its way to the community.

"We never got a nickel of it," he said.

The lesson is clear, said Keith Roberts of the Holly Neck Improvement Association: "Better be involved. If you turn your head today, it can go the other way."

Few seem to be turning their heads.

Nancy Hubers, former head of the community college system in the county and a former president of the Essex-Middle River Chamber of Commerce, is running again for the House of Delegates. She was appalled, she said, when the state failed to meet its obligations to the community college system.

"The state never paid its full share, so the tuition had to make up the difference," she said.

She hopes to sit in legislative councils to provide leadership that won't tolerate such a lapse in the future.

"I want to sit on the other side of the table and be an advocate for education," she said. "I'm not disillusioned at all about our political process. I'm very optimistic."

But her patience has been sorely tried. Among her many civic involvements is membership on a panel that consults on the extension of Route 43, a 4-mile stretch that would link Interstate 95 to areas of the district where industrial development awaits better access.

A multitude of regulations, planning requirements and approval steps could delay completion of the project for many years, she fears.

A Glendening supporter, Hubers worries that a lengthy delay -- ++ or a large tax cut proposed by Sauerbrey -- would hurt the district. With polarization of wealth, tensions between the haves and have-nots could grow.

"We are hurting," she said. "We need good-paying jobs. We have some of the highest unemployment in the county and a large number of poverty-level people."

Businesses regard the road project with a similar level of urgency, according to Norman Sines, president of the Chamber of Commerce.

"All the hoops that have to be jumped through by the state we're just way over-regulated. I worked in construction. I see this as all extra cost," he said. He'll back Sauerbrey, he said, because she seems willing to take the steps needed to streamline the system.

"We're sitting on a diamond in the rough here," he said. "We've got it all and no one's looking."

Like Hubers, he is confident that Essex-Middle River has plenty of leadership talent -- confidence that was affirmed during a recent candidates forum.

"I had such a feeling of pride that there were so many people from our area who were dedicated to making us a better place," he said. "These people will have to go through a lot. Changing the process will be a tremendous job."

The perfect change, said Will Gerard, would be a practical recognition of government's limitations.

"You want people to do what they're supposed to do and get out of your life," he said. "The trouble is, once they get in they never leave."

Pub Date: 10/19/98

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