WASHINGTON – Maybe Savage is the most fitting name for the Howard County community’s post office after all.
A bill that would have renamed the Savage Post Office in honor of local Medal of Honor winner Alfred Rascon died quietly in a Senate subcommittee last week, but not before sparking an emotional feud that had neighbors throwing charges of racism and underhanded tactics at each other.
All eight Maryland House members sponsored the bill, which was introduced by Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick, and passed the House on a voice vote in July.
But after Savage residents complained to Sens. Paul Sarbanes and Barbara Mikulski, the Baltimore Democrats asked last week that the bill not be brought up for a vote in committee.
“I am disappointed that Sens. Sarbanes and Mikulski yielded to pressure from a tiny minority of `not in my backyard’ malcontents,” Bartlett said.
Aides in Bartlett’s office said racism was partly behind the opposition to the seemingly innocuous bill: Rascon is a Mexican-American.
But opponents said their main objection was to the way Bartlett forced the bill on their community without consulting with anyone beforehand. They accused the Bartlett’s staff of “abusive” and underhanded tactics.
“They told us they were going to drag us through the mud,” said Janet Arnold, a Savage resident and member of the community association.
Arnold, who was Savage’s mail carrier for 20 years, made more than 200 phone calls to rally opposition to the name change. Local politicians, including two state delegates, jumped into the fray as well and asked Sarbanes and Mikulski to block the bill.
One of those lawmakers, Howard County Democratic Delegate Frank Turner, denied that racism was behind the opposition and blasted Bartlett for handling the issue “like a freshmen in Congress by not getting the community involved.”
The proposed name change soon divided the small town near the Anne Arundel County border, which was consumed by meetings, petitions and lobbying.
“I feel it’s hurt the community,” said Ernie Foster, a longtime resident who lives across the street from the post office. He accused Bartlett of creating divisions with his charges of racism in an attempt to pass the bill.
But others said the dispute just exposed a rift that was already there.
“These are not new divisions . this thing has made the existing polarization (of Savage) very clear,” said resident Deb Schultz. “I think there are a group of people that think this is a small self-centered, old-fashioned community that’s not a part of the larger growing area.”
Bartlett has vowed “as a matter of principle” to find some way to honor Rascon.
Through it all, Rascon, who lives in nearby Laurel, has remained calm.
Rascon was a medic in Vietnam on March 16, 1966, when his unit came under attack. He earned his Medal of Honor for throwing himself in front of hand grenades, absorbing the brunt of blasts that could have killed his comrades.
He said he was honored by Bartlett’s effort, but not disturbed by the resulting flap. The Savage debate demonstrates what it is that makes his adopted country great, Rascon said.
“This is no one’s fault that I was put in an awkward position,” he said. “I was just someone doing their job.”