To hear Gov. Jim Justice tell it, West Virginia isn’t almost heaven. The state’s already there, and his earthly paradise beckons to Marylanders just beyond its borders.
Justice took to video Friday to preach annexation to the residents of Maryland’s three westernmost counties, embracing a quixotic request in official letters from five Maryland state lawmakers that West Virginia consider absorbing Garrett, Allegany and Washington counties.
“Why in the world wouldn’t you want to come? Absolutely, without any question, the invitation is wide-open,” Justice, a 70-year-old billionaire coal mining magnate and second-term Republican, crowed while describing West Virginia in near-transcendental terms. “You sure as the dickens won’t ever regret it!”
Justice made the livestreamed appeal — joined by three of West Virginia’s top state lawmakers — a day after news broke that the cadre of five GOP lawmakers from the Western Maryland counties had dashed off correspondence inquiring about the possibility. The group described their corner of Maryland as neglected by Annapolis and out-of-step with a state politically dominated by Baltimore and the sprawling Washington, D.C., suburbs.
It’s a long shot proposal — a borderline impossibility, given the political and legal complexities involved. Several of the Maryland state lawmakers involved acknowledged as much in interviews Thursday with The Baltimore Sun, describing the letters as a more of tactic aimed at drawing attention to what they claim are their region’s disregarded needs and values.
Within hours of Justice’s performance, the gambit began to crumble amid sharp criticism from other Maryland politicians. Two of the key signatories of the original proposals — Del. Jason Buckel and Sen. George Edwards — largely disavowed the effort in joint letter to other Western Maryland lawmakers.
Buckel wrote in the three-page letter Friday that he was now convinced “the entire effort may be foolhardy,” that the proposal and ensuing publicity around it was “counterproductive” and that continuing to push it would be “misguided.”
The Allegany County delegate told colleagues he only intended to support a nonbinding referendum to gauge local interest in exploring the bid. But instead of rallying support for Western Maryland issues, the pitch had “created mischaracterizations and grave concerns from voices across Maryland,” Buckel wrote.
The hay that a gleeful Justice and other West Virginia politicians made from the pitch also might’ve played a role in Buckel’s reconsideration. Buckel, who chairs the GOP caucus in the Maryland House of Delegates, wrote that the Western Maryland letter writers moved “too far, too fast on this issue, motivated by the political calendar of our counterparts in West Virginia rather than by a prudent strategy.”
The antics clearly piqued a number of other prominent figures, including fellow Maryland Republicans and Western Maryland figures who were less than amused Friday with the proposal and ensuing media coverage.
Gov. Larry Hogan called the letters “a mistake” and “just a game for attention” after he took part Friday in a groundbreaking at Baltimore’s Penn Station.
“I understand the frustration of being in Western Maryland, sometimes feeling that you know, out of step, neglected or forgotten by an increasingly progressive legislature that doesn’t somehow relate to some of the folks out in rural areas. But I don’t think that’s the way to go about it,” said Hogan, a Republican. “I think it was a publicity stunt that worked well because you guys are going to ask about it. But it’s not really going to happen.”
State Sen. Paul D. Corderman, a Washington County Republican, declined to sign the letters and made clear in a statement Friday that he didn’t participate in discussions with West Virginia officials or visit the state capital in Charleston, like most other local state lawmakers from the area.
“I have no interest, nor do I think a majority of the constituents we represent have any interest, in leaving the state of Maryland,” Corderman said, praising Hogan’s leadership in Maryland and noting the millions in state funding that have flowed from Annapolis to his district.
Allegany County Board of Commissioners President Jake Shade ripped the lawmakers behind the letters at a Thursday meeting in Cumberland, calling the bid and ensuing media coverage “ridiculous” and “a disgrace” to the area.
“It makes us look dumb. It makes us look stupid and it’s embarrassing,” said Shade, a Republican who’s running for a seat in the Maryland Senate. “If you don’t want to do the job in the state of Maryland, just move. Go to West Virginia, right across the river. You can run for office there. I don’t agree with all the laws of the state of Maryland, I don’t think anyone up here does, but that’s not the way you do it.”
But West Virginia’s leaders clearly savored the annexation proposal, pledging to quickly pass legislation to welcome the counties while framing the letters as an endorsement of their political program.
Maryland Policy & Politics
Justice waxed for about 20 minutes, painting a picture of wonders for his prospective new constituents — “you would see job opportunity like crazy with the chance to live in paradise, and I mean it!” — and suggesting that even the weather could be better, as his state would bring with it “four seasons that are the most beautiful as beautiful could possibly be.”
The West Virginia governor stumbled several times over how to say Garrett County — “I mean, is it Garnett?” he asked an aide off-camera — before sorting out the pronunciation and pledging to get it down pat “for years to come” if it becomes part of West Virginia.
Justice and other West Virginia lawmakers hinged their pitch around their state’s lower taxes, highly permissive gun laws, anti-abortion politics and much looser approach to business and environmental regulations.
“We’re not going to stand there with red tape in the way,” Justice said. “We’re not gonna wrap you so tight with red tape you’d be rather Bubble Wrapped.”
Justice broadened his pitch Friday for a grand vision of West Virginia’s dominion, one that would stretch far beyond its current borders.
“No matter where you are in this incredible globe that we have, no matter where you are, we want you in West Virginia,” Justice said. “You won’t go wrong, I’ll promise you that.”
Baltimore Sun reporters Hallie Miller and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.