WASHINGTON – The days of Baltimore holding all the cards in the General Assembly are not merely gone — they never were.
For most of the century, Baltimore had much less legislative representation than its share of the state population, which at one point topped more than 50 percent.
So why does the image persist of the city as a powerhouse in state politics, able to drag the rest of the state anywhere it wants?
Political observers say part of it lies in the discipline of the city’s lawmakers, who make the most out of their clout by voting together. And some of it just comes from the reputation of being the biggest kid on the block.
“Baltimore City historically has been one of the last bastions of political machines … you have a higher degree of cohesion than in the suburbs,” said Frostburg Mayor John Bambacus, a former state senator.
“They’re still obviously retaining influence, but they’re having to fight harder and harder,” said Bambacus, a political science professor at Frostburg State University.
James Gimpel, associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, cites two factors in the city’s air of invincibility: The number of prominent state leaders who have come out of the city and the fact that it is so thoroughly Democratic.
Many of the state’s prominent figures, including five of the last nine governors, were born in Baltimore. And, because the city is so staunchly Democratic, once Baltimore elects someone, they almost never lose, Gimpel said.
“There’s virtually no competition at all,” he said, adding that elsewhere in Maryland, Republicans “at least have a prayer.”
Donald B. Robertson got to see the city’s influence first-hand while serving Montgomery County in the House of Delegates for 17 years, including a stint as House majority leader. He said that while the city never completely dominated state politics, it has always been the top player.
Part of the reason, he said, was that the city’s lawmakers tend to have the same objectives.
“Baltimore City is one subdivision, and its interests are ones that all its senators and delegates are going to share,” he said. “Whereas Montgomery County and Prince George’s County’s interests are much more divergent.”
State Sen. Walter Baker, D-Cecil, thinks there may be another reason for the perception that the city is king of the hill: Everybody is always targeting it.
“It’s very popular out here in the rural counties to beat up on Baltimore,” he said. “I’m guilty of it.”
But even if Baltimore has never had the votes for absolute domination of the legislature, it has always been and still is a force to reckon with.
“It’s simplistic to say that Baltimore City dominated,” Robertson said. “But certainly, Baltimore was, and continues to be, a very influential factor in the General Assembly.”