Survey shows growing division

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The boundaries between Baltimore and its suburban neighbors might appear to be just lines on a map, but the results of a recent Sun Poll show a real and growing division of attitudes.

On opinions about politics, terrorism and war, and views about supporting Baltimore's schools, city residents and their county cousins seem to live in different worlds.

"More and more, there is a growing political and ideological separation between the Baltimore area suburbs and Baltimore City. From my vantage point, I think it's unusual that the inner suburbs have such stark differences with the city," said Keith Haller, whose company, Potomac Inc. of Bethesda, polled 800 registered Maryland voters this month on a variety of issues.

Of those polled, more than three times as many suburbanites as Baltimoreans said that removing Saddam Hussein from power was worth the cost of the war in Iraq. The percentage of those saying they believed the economy was improving was nearly double that in the city. Nearly half the suburban voters polled said Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. should be re-elected; a quarter of city voters agreed.

It's not just an urban-suburban divide. People in the Washington suburbs were more likely than those living in the region around Baltimore to support increased spending for Baltimore schools.

Haller, like other observers, sees "much more commonality on politics, social issues and the role of government" among voters in Baltimore and those in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. He attributes that partly to the racial divide: 84 percent of Baltimore suburban voters are white, compared with Prince George's County's majority black population and Montgomery's multi-ethnic population.

"The fact of life is that when you look at this Baltimore suburban ring, it still is heavily white," he said.

Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political science professor, agreed.

"I think it has everything to do with race," he said. "It's amazing how the things people will say change when you cross the city line."

Donald P. Hutchinson, a former Baltimore County executive who once was executive director of the Greater Baltimore Committee, disagreed.

"It's an economic divide" and no longer a racial one, despite appearances, he said, pointing out that the city and the suburbs no longer share attitudes that came with shared manufacturing jobs and large union membership. The more prosperous suburbs are increasingly conservative, while needier city residents know they need education and help to do better.

Theodore G. Venetoulis, another former Baltimore County executive, remembers that before he was elected in 1974, county politicians built careers on hostility toward Baltimore.

The first waves of white flight from Baltimore after the 1954 decision to desegregate schools fueled a powerful fear in Baltimore County that the city's poorest black families would follow. For years, eastern county Democrats stoked fears of "low-cost housing" and the racial implications it entailed during countless election campaigns.

Now, Venetoulis said, county residents who move from the city still have friends or relatives there, or visit the harbor, stadiums, restaurants and cultural attractions but are critical of the city's crime and poor schools.

"There's almost a kind of schizophrenic sense from folks in the county," he said.

Mike Witkowski, 44, of Phoenix in Baltimore County, a businessman who responded to the poll, said city politicians have catered to their constituents for decades by focusing on what they can give to them.

"It doesn't empower them," he said. "Less government is better than more government."

City and suburban voters agree by wide margins that slot machine gambling should return to Maryland, to provide more revenue and to capture Maryland money going to gambling in nearby states. But that issue stands alone.

The poll confirms what several elections have shown: Baltimore residents' views are often closer to those of voters in Prince George's and Montgomery counties. Donald F. Norris, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said that creates a decisive political role for Baltimore County's voters.

"The reality is that statewide elections for governor are going to be won or lost in Baltimore County," Norris said, especially as Baltimore's population shrinks.

That situation will almost certainly come into play in the next gubernatorial election, next year, particularly if it's a contest between Ehrlich and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. In 2002, Norris said, one of Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's biggest mistakes in her failed bid for governor was that she didn't campaign enough in Baltimore County.

"Baltimore County is going to be the Florida and Ohio of the next election in Maryland," Hutchinson said, referring to the key states in President Bush's re-election.

The suburbs are increasingly becoming a Republican stronghold. Nearly half the suburbanites polled said they have more confidence in the Republican Party than in the Democrats, compared with 15 percent in the city.

"Carroll and Harford are going to continue to go Republican, and in Anne Arundel, Republican majorities will grow slowly over time. Howard County will continue to split," Norris said. "What that means is you've got a huge vote in Baltimore County that can go either way."

Thirty-three percent of those polled in Baltimore City, Montgomery and Prince George's said they approve of President Bush's performance. In the other 21 Maryland counties, 58 percent said they approve.

Asked about school funding, 69 percent of respondents in Montgomery County said they favor more spending on Baltimore schools, with 9 percent opposed. In Prince George's, it was 76 percent in favor and 11 percent opposed. Baltimore respondents said they favor spending more on city schools by an 84-to-6 margin. Those in Baltimore's suburbs agreed, 58 to 34.

"It's time to share that wealth with other places," said Kathleen Kyne, 44, of Rockville. "It benefits everybody" if each child gets a good education, she said.

Harry Greene, 81, of Upper Marlboro said he, too, favors more money for city schools.

"If you tell me any county in the state of Maryland needs more money to fund school programs, I'd say yes," he said.

Harry Fuller, 40, of Ellicott City, said, "I think the [Baltimore] schools are doing a disservice to the kids. The quality of schools [in Baltimore] is horrible. It isn't the state's fault. I don't like my tax money going down there."

That reluctance among Baltimore's suburbanites is not unusual, political scientists say, partly because they live closer to the city than Washington area voters do.

"One wonders if Baltimore was next door to Prince George's and Montgomery counties if they'd be so favorably disposed toward the city. Proximity breeds contempt," Norris said.

Baltimore respondents said they, too, have doubts about management of city schools, but most said more financial support is needed.

"I think they're in bad shape, but we've got to help them out," Michael Burns, 53, said of Baltimore's schools.

"I'm worried about [Baltimore schools] laying off teachers," said Paris Davenport, 36, of Baltimore. "Maybe if they have more money, they can do better."

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