On map of politics, Maryland is on left; State's leaders, policies tend toward liberal by most measures

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Maryland doesn't have an official motto, but it may be on the verge of winning an unofficial one -- America's Most Liberal State.

That is, of course, a mythical distinction as there is no precise way of measuring such a competition among the 50 states.

But there is little doubt that Maryland can be lumped with such liberal bastions as Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Minnesota -- and may well have taken a spot to their left on the overall political spectrum.

While all of those states have elected moderate or conservative Republicans to statewide office this decade, Maryland has elected nothing but left-leaning Democrats in statewide balloting.

On issues such as abortion, gun control, a "living wage" for low-income earners, affirmative action and, to some extent, taxes, Maryland finds itself on the left edge among the states.

That was never clearer than when the state's chief law enforcement officer, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr., called last month for a virtual ban on the personal ownership of handguns.

Many of the state's political leaders dismissed Curran's proposal, not necessarily because they disagreed with it, but rather because it was politically untenable -- at least for now.

Similarly, even with the state budget overflowing with nearly $1 billion in excess revenue, the state's ranking Democratic leaders have summarily rejected calls for major tax cuts, noting a backlog of unmet state needs.

Such tendencies easily put Maryland somewhere in the top five of liberal states, said Donald F. Norris, a professor of policy sciences at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He stressed, though, that Maryland does show conservative tendencies in some areas, such as welfare reform or its relatively stingy funding of its colleges.

"You have to look at a variety of measures. In some, Maryland does very well and in others it doesn't," Norris said. "But it does elect liberal politicians."

Some Republican leaders in Maryland, eager to capture the allegiance of moderate swing voters, deride the state as the new Massachusetts.

"Clearly, Maryland is one of the most liberal states in the country, if not the most liberal," said Richard D. Bennett, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party and twice a losing statewide candidate here.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who has pursued an increasingly left-leaning agenda during his five years in office, agreed that the state stands near the top of the liberal list, although he said he prefers the less inflammatory term: "progressive."

"Maryland is a progressive state and has been for decades and decades," said Glendening, a longtime political science professor. "It's not that we're out of the mainstream, but that we're leaders."

Democrats' firm hold

The liberal hold on the state is hardly monolithic.

Ronald Reagan carried Maryland in 1984, conservative Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey came within a whisker of defeating Glendening to win the governor's office in 1994, and three of the state's eight members of the House of Representatives take a generally conservative tack on issues.

The GOP has also made gains in voter registration in recent years. And outside the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area, liberal elected officials are extremely rare.

But by many other measures, it's clear that a liberal-leaning Democratic Party has established a firm control on state affairs, one rivaled in few states:

Maryland Democrats generally withstood the Republican tidal wave that washed over much of the country in the early 1990s after a major recession. Most critically, Glendening held off Sauerbrey in 1994 -- albeit by only 6,000 votes.

"It was an overwhelming Republican year in 1994, and it was still not enough to lift the boats of Republicans in Maryland," said Bennett.

Liberal Massachusetts has had Republican governors throughout the 1990s.

In heavily Democratic Rhode Island, the GOP has held the governor's office since 1994 and filled four of the five statewide offices as recently as 1996, thanks in part to a banking crisis that enraged many voters.

And in Minnesota -- known for its progressive politics -- voters have elected conservative Republican Rod Grams to the U.S. Senate and the Reform Party's Jesse Ventura as governor.

The last Republican to carry Maryland was George Bush in 1988.

Ask the voters in Maryland and they tend to show liberal leanings. Last fall, exit polling in Maryland showed that a quarter of the voters used the dreaded "L-word" to identify their political philosophy. That roughly matched the numbers found in Vermont and Massachusetts.

Maryland voters overwhelmingly approved a 1988 referendum on gun control and a 1992 referendum on a liberal abortion-rights law.

In the Maryland General Assembly, Democrats occupy 73 percent of the 188 seats, the sixth-highest percentage among the 50 state legislatures -- trailing Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Arkansas and West Virginia.

While House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and other moderate-to-conservative Democrats tend to keep a rightward check on the legislature, liberals make up about half the membership in both the House of Delegates and Senate.

At the federal level, Maryland's long-serving senators, Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski, are two of the most consistently liberal votes in Washington, rivaled by tandems from only a few states such as Massachusetts, according to rankings compiled by liberal and conservative advocacy groups.

Similarly, the four Democratic members of the U.S. House from Maryland, joined often by Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County, make up a solidly liberal voting bloc.

Glendening has advanced an increasingly leftward agenda -- he would call it "progressive" -- during his five years in the State House and surged to a surprisingly big victory in 1998.

While Congress and such states as California looked to ban race-based affirmative action in recent years, Glendening and the General Assembly quietly expanded the amount of work the state sets aside for minority-owned firms.

Last year, Glendening's legislative wish list included a push to ban discrimination against gays and lesbians, which was supported by a majority in both the House and Senate but died in committee; a bill granting collective bargaining rights for state employees, which passed with large majorities; and a costly new scholarship program aimed largely at middle-class families, which sailed to passage.

In the coming session, Glendening will propose a bill that would make Maryland the first state to outlaw the sale of any handgun not equipped with technology to make it "childproof."

Maryland already has some of stiffest gun controls in the nation, including a prohibition on assault weapons, so-called Saturday Night Specials, and the purchase of more than one gun a month.

Glendening is quick to point out that Maryland has not gone so far left as to alienate the business community, citing favorable job-growth and unemployment statistics that he says show faith in the state's business climate. Many conservatives sharply disagree with his assessment.

The tax issue

Glendening also noted that he has allowed executions of criminals and that the state has cut several taxes during his time in office.

What he doesn't mention is that on tax cuts, Maryland has not gone as far as many other states this decade.

Maryland's signature tax change in the past decade was a phased-in 10 percent reduction in the state income tax passed in 1997 after strong pressure from Sauerbrey and other Republicans.

By comparison, other states in the Northeast, such as New Jersey and New York, cut income taxes by a full 25 percent this decade.

In Massachusetts, once derided as "Taxachusetts," former Gov. William F. Weld, a Republican, pushed through a series of tax cuts, including reductions in levies on mutual funds, banks and capital gains, after taking office in 1990.

Weld's successor, Gov. Paul Cellucci, a fiscally conservative Republican, has proposed a 16 percent income tax cut, although the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature in Massachusetts has approved only a small portion of that.

Not Mississippi

In rejecting additional reductions here, Glendening's stock answer has included an allusion to Mississippi, a state with low taxes but which is one of the nation's poorest. "If the lowest tax rate is the most desirable thing, most people would be living in Mississippi," Glendening said last year.

Meanwhile, Maryland did something last year that only a handful of other states did -- increase a tax.

Maryland raised the state tax on cigarettes by 83 percent; Glendening proclaimed it a health measure. But the move came as the state was enjoying a surging budget surplus, now close to $1 billion.

Some political observers said it would be a stretch to label Maryland the nation's most liberal state.

"It would be tough to go beyond Massachusetts and Hawaii and probably West Virginia in some ways," said Ronald A. Faucheux, editor of Campaigns & Elections, a national magazine for the political campaign industry.

Rather, says Faucheux, Maryland is one of a small number of states in which Democrats are firmly in control -- at least for the moment.

"It's one of the few states where Democrats have a governing majority," he said.

However it stacks up nationally, the foundations for the state's political leanings are no mystery.

Maryland has a high proportion of African-Americans -- about 25 percent of the population -- a group that tends to vote Democratic.

There is also a small army of federal workers, who tend to believe in the role of government.

Even so, Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a Howard County Republican, said the state's top officials, who are predominantly liberal, do not accurately reflect a populace that is more balanced between conservatives and liberals.

"The electorate is not imbalanced," Flanagan said. "The electorate is slightly in favor of the Democrats, but you have a lot of mechanisms that perpetuate a Democratic one-party system."

In other words, according to Flanagan and others, nothing succeeds like success.

Democrats, he noted, have controlled the legislative and congressional redistricting process in Maryland for decades.

'Let me draw the lines'

"Let me draw the lines and we could add another 20 seats" for Republicans in the legislature, Flanagan said.

In addition, because the Democrats have such a lock on the General Assembly, business leaders who would normally favor Republicans are forced to lend their financial support to Democrats -- or risk losing access to policy-makers.

"Unlike other states, you still have conservatives in the Democratic Party" in Maryland, said U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican from Baltimore County, who served eight years in the House of Delegates before going to Congress.

"These moderate or conservative Democrats feel obliged to support these very, very liberal statewide candidates, even if they aren't all that wild about them," Ehrlich added.

Will Maryland grow more conservative? Don't bet on it.

The leading candidates for governor on the Democratic side include Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a staunch believer in big government, and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who has supported a variety of liberal initiatives.

Duncan, for example, has made an early issue out of expanding the state's "earned income tax credit," which provides state assistance to the working poor.

Ehrlich, who has supported much of the conservative Republican agenda in Congress, is considered one of the state GOP's brightest stars, but he concluded early on that the liberal Sarbanes will be unbeatable in his re-election bid to the Senate next year.

Now weighing a run for governor in three years, Ehrlich says the right candidate can defeat a liberal in a statewide race here.

"Most people, even in Maryland, are not on the fringes," Ehrlich said. "They're somewhere in the middle."

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