A handful of Republican lawmakers from western Maryland are plotting a run for the border, and want to drag their counties along with them.
The secessionist cadre — a group of five state legislators from Garrett, Allegany and Washington counties — sent a pair of letters to top West Virginia officials asking whether they might annex their westernmost piece of the panhandle and make Mountain Maryland a permanent part of the Mountain State.
Abandoning Maryland for West Virginia would be a legally complicated, politically arduous process requiring the blessing of lawmakers in both state capitals as well as the U.S. Congress. The odds, to put it generously, are stacked heavily against it.
Most of those signing the letter framed it more as a political tactic aimed at grabbing attention for what they claim are the neglected needs of their relatively sparsely populated corner of the state, although at least a couple appeared genuinely intrigued by the prospect.
“There’s almost zero chance of this ever occurring,” said Allegany County Del. Jason Buckel, who heads the GOP caucus in the Maryland House of Delegates.
Buckel said he hoped it might spur policy makers to think more about Western Maryland’s needs.
“I think there’s 99.9% chance it would never happen,” said Sen. George Edwards, a Republican from Garrett County who has served in the Maryland legislature since 1983.
The whole time he’s been in office, Edwards said, people from Mountain Maryland have felt like they get the short end of the stick. Bringing up the idea of leaving the state is a way to draw attention to the concerns of Western Marylanders, he said, particularly when it comes to economic development.
But Del. Mike McKay, a Republican who represents Washington and Allegany counties, seemed genuinely interested in exploring the possibility. McKay said one idea is to pass a bill in the Maryland General Assembly that would put a nonbinding referendum on the 2022 ballot to poll voters in the three counties about the switch.
Sounding out potential interest in West Virginia would be the first step, according to McKay: “First you have to knock on the door and see if the person is willing to answer before we can discuss how it would work out.”
McKay said his constituents often don’t feel heard in Annapolis on issues like gun rights and taxes.
If it turns out that their constituents don’t want it — or if West Virginia isn’t interested — then the matter would be put to bed, McKay said.
“We’re answering the call of some of our constituents who have been requesting this for many years,” he said.
The letters, addressed to the leaders of the West Virginia Legislature, asked them to “consider adding us as constituent counties to the State of West Virginia,” an arrangement the Western Maryland state lawmakers claimed “may be mutually beneficial for both states and for our local constituencies.”
At least some top figures on the West Virginia side sounded ready Thursday to embrace the effort and potentially grab ahold of the panhandle.
In fact, according to Edwards, it was West Virginia lawmakers that first made the pitch, inviting the Western Maryland contingent to the state capitol in Charleston “a couple months ago” to tout the state’s lower-tax, business-friendly climate.
West Virginia House of Delegates Speaker Roger Hanshaw, through a spokesperson, called the current discussion “step zero” of a lengthy process — but the Republican added “we would certainly welcome any border communities that may see their values better reflected here in the Mountain State.”
Gov. Jim Justice, a billionaire coal mining magnate, didn’t respond to inquiries from The Baltimore Sun. But the Republican governor has made a showman’s pitch to grab disaffected counties from neighboring states before, hitting the stump in Virginia with Jerry Falwell Jr. in 2020 to encourage conservative pockets there to join West Virginia after Democrats made gains in Richmond.
Of course, drastic political differences — of a far deeper, darker and bloodier variety — are what birthed the state of West Virginia in the first place when, in 1863, the mountainous hotbed of unionism was carved out of slave-holding Virginia, which had joined the Confederacy in the Civil War.
Outside of such extreme circumstances, though, redrawing state lines is a daunting political and legal challenge that likely leaves any effort to split Western Maryland from the rest of the state — even if earnest and widely supported locally — a vanishingly unlikely prospect that’s happened in only rare occasions.
When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rerouted a portion of the Red River of the North in the early 1960s — orphaning about 20 unoccupied acres of Minnesota on the distant shore — it took the approval of both state legislatures, signatures from two governors and an act of Congress to hand the land over to South Dakota.
Maryland Policy & Politics
Western Maryland lawmakers have periodically raised concerns in the Maryland General Assembly that their part of the state is different from the rest of the state, with a more conservative political outlook, unique economic drivers, a media market based in Pittsburgh and close borders with surrounding states.
When hydraulic fracturing, a method of drilling for natural gas also known as “fracking,” was banned statewide a few years ago, Western Maryland lawmakers objected, saying that the rest of the state was taking away a potential economic lifeline for the largely rural area.
The idea of Western Maryland breaking away was not warmly received by Democratic leaders of the General Assembly. Del. Eric Luedtke, Democratic majority leader in the House of Delegates, called the proposal “a total political stunt.”
“It’s a distraction from the issues Western Marylanders want addressed,” said Luedtke, a Montgomery County Democrat.
Western Maryland isn’t the only part of the state that’s been discussed for secession.
Back in the late 1990s, a couple of state lawmakers from the Eastern Shore floated the idea of creating a 51st state of “Delmarva” out of Maryland’s Shore counties, Virginia’s Shore counties and Delaware’s two southernmost counties.
Quixotic secession proposals have popped up periodically around the nation, with residents claiming they don’t fit in with the rest of their state. Most recently, residents of rural and largely conservative counties in Oregon have taken the first step toward aligning with Idaho, though their chance of success is unknown.