WASHINGTON – Marylanders moved from the farm to the city and then to the suburbs by the hundreds of thousands over the course of the 20th century.
But it took the pounding of a judge’s gavel — not the mass migration of voters — to really shake up the state’s political power structure.
Before the Supreme Court ruled in 1962 that state legislative election districts had to be the same in population, representation in Maryland’s General Assembly was “proportionate to the counties, not the people,” said Blair Lee.
“Cows used to vote,” said Lee, a columnist for the Montgomery Journal.
Now, as the century draws to a close, the political power is moving to the suburbs, along with the voters. But state politicians and political observers say that, despite the numbers, the suburbs are just now beginning to truly flex their political muscle.
“The suburban counties do not have the same political organizations that Baltimore City had and still, to some degree, has,” said Frostburg Mayor John Bambacus, a former state senator.
“You don’t have the cohesiveness that you had in the ’60s and ’70s,” in Baltimore, Bambacus said. The suburbs are more independent, he said.
It is a sharp contrast to the early part of the century when the rural counties were able to rule the legislature by their sheer numbers. That was true even though they did not have the voters to justify their muscle in Annapolis.
In 1900, almost 43 percent of the state’s population lived in Baltimore, but the city was allotted only 12 percent of the seats in the Senate and 20 percent in the House of Delegates. At the same time, the Eastern Shore had only 16 percent of the state’s residents but it had 35 percent of the Senate and 27 percent of the House.
“The Eastern Shore was a very powerful political machine,” said state Sen. Walter Baker, D-Cecil, a 21-year veteran of the Senate.
The imbalance was due to the fact that the Maryland Constitution at the turn of the century called for Baltimore City to have three senators and each of the 23 counties to have one.
The House more closely represented the state population, but small counties still managed to come out ahead under the constitution at the time. It gave each county one delegate for every 5,000 white residents, up to 25,000 people. One delegate was awarded for the next 20,000 residents and, after that, one delegate was awarded for every 80,000 residents.
Fifty years later, Baltimore’s population had grown by almost half a million — more than 15 times the growth of the Eastern Shore — but the city still was not as powerful in the General Assembly. Baltimore got a few additional senators over the decades — enough to challenge the rural counties but not enough to match them.
“What used to happen was that the Eastern Shore and Baltimore City ran the state,” said Baker.
The system changed in 1966, after the state underwent a massive redistricting to comply with the Supreme Court’s “one man, one vote” ruling of 1962.
“We saw it as something that was going to destroy the state, but obviously it didn’t,” Baker said of the redistricting.
With reapportionment, Baltimore City finally had the political clout that its population merited. But so, too, did the quickly growing suburbs. And the city began to shrink during the 1970s, while the rest of the state grew.
Between 1970 and 1980, the city lost almost 120,000 residents, while the state’s overall population jumped by almost 295,000.
Montgomery, Prince George’s and Baltimore counties have all passed the city in population since, and Anne Arundel County is closing in. The suburban counties have seen their representation in Annapolis increase accordingly, as legislative districts were redrawn in 1970, 1980 and 1990.
But their political prowess is just now catching up.
Competing interests among the biggest players have prevented the suburbs from drowning out the voices of the rest of the state, said Donald B. Robertson, who represented Montgomery County in the General Assembly for 17 years.
“You very seldom found all of the large jurisdictions aligned,” Robertson said. “They’d vary from issue to issue.”
But Bambacus said there are signs that the suburbs are finally beginning to take advantage of their top-dog status. He points to the fact that Gov. Parris Glendening is from Prince George’s County and that the top 2002 gubernatorial candidates are all from the suburbs.
“The suburbs are certainly flexing their muscles,” he said. “The counties are becoming stronger every year.”
And what about the once-powerful rural areas?
“We’ve got what I call the big four,” in Baltimore City and Montgomery, Prince George’s and Baltimore counties, Baker said. “As long as we keep the Washington metro area and the Baltimore area on the other side, we do pretty good.
“But if they ever decide to take over, they can do it.”