OLNEY – Semi-rural, conservative and nearly 80 percent white, Olney is a bastion of country quaintness.
Living here means shopping at the Amish Connection instead of Home Depot, at Cricket Books instead of Borders. It’s commuting for miles each day, past the folksy, carved wooden signs along Georgia Avenue that read:
“Welcome to Olney.”
One of several small towns dotting the northern edge of Montgomery County, it has long provided a reliable, even affectionate bloc of voter support for Rep. Connie Morella, R-Bethesda.
But that may have to change.
A proposed new congressional map would knock Olney out of Morella’s 8th District, along with nearby Sandy Spring, Ashton and Burtonsville and drop them into District 4 — the bustling, largely urban, majority-black district represented by Rep. Al Wynn, D-Largo.
To Olney Pet and Grooming Salon co-owner Richard Gunning, that’s like trading in a Mercedes-Benz for an old Chevy.
“I would not want to be represented in any way by something involving a Prince George’s County type,” said Gunning. “I like being represented by Connie Morella.
“Until Prince George’s gets their act together and provides more leadership, I’m perfectly happy to stay right as we are,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to see us take on existing problems in other areas, and I think that’s what would probably happen.”
That doesn’t surprise Joe Wall, a real estate agent who lives about 30 miles south in Suitland, in the heart of the 4th District.
“I think they already have a preconceived opinion of what Prince George’s County is,” he said. “Bad schools, poor government, lousy services.”
The majority of voters in the 4th District hail from Prince George’s County cities hugging the District line — communities like Suitland, Seat Pleasant and Capitol Heights — where residents have their pick of Metro stations and grapple with rising violent crime rates.
“Never been there,” said Cathy Wetmiller, owner of Cahoots Craft Showcase in Olney, who has supported Morella since first meeting her at a Girl Scouts event.
Wetmiller said she knows almost nothing about the Prince George’s County communities in Wynn’s district, or about the congressman himself.
“Does he have the concerns of farmers?” she asked. “Olney’s a very country town, you know. It’s farms and cows. It’s absolutely not urban. The Sandy Spring area nearby is Quaker-based, but also very country, too.”
Residents in this part of Montgomery County said urban issues like crime and homelessness don’t generally top their priority lists. They spend more time worrying about land development (many resist it), traffic (they hate it) and education (they worry about it all time).
John Ferguson, of the Olney Chamber of Commerce, predicted a “clash of interests” may arise between Montgomery and Prince George’s County voters in the proposed new 4th District.
Relax, said Tommie Broadwater Jr.
The former state senator from Prince George’s County, who owns Broadwater Bonding and the Ebony Inn Barbecue in Fairmont Heights, said Wynn’s new constituents are likely to discover they have more in common with him and with his urban base than they think.
“One of their main concerns may be farming, but the point is that down here, the key issues are still going to be education, economic development, jobs, services — I don’t think it’s really that much difference,” he said.
Wynn went a step further himself Friday, pointing out his “outstanding” record on agricultural issues and his own family roots in farming.
“My family on both sides were farmers,” he said. “My father owned a dairy farm, and my grandfather was a tobacco and produce farmer.
“I think I do have a real affinity for farming and agricultural issues; as a child, I even lived on a farm in North Carolina,” he said. “At the same time though, I think they’ll find I’m also ready to do my homework.”
If the current redistricting proposal goes into effect, Wynn will also have to get around Morella’s charmed legacy. The majority of Montgomery County residents interviewed said they had at least shaken Morella’s hand. Some considered her a personal friend, and almost all said they mourned the prospect of losing her as their representative.
“As a Democrat, I have to admit that Connie has a record of rapid response,” said Karen Montgomery of Brookeville, who is currently running for the state legislature. “That’s how she does so well here. Al will have to live up to that, but we expect that he will.”
Wynn said he isn’t too worried about the Morella factor.
“I look forward to letting people get to know old Al,” he said. “I think people know my record of getting out and meeting people, working with constituents. I think it’s going to be a good relationship.”
More important than perceived regional differences, he said, are the broader, “common denominator” issues he will be handling in Congress — education funding, prescription drug coverage, pension security, transportation.
“These are issues I think that both the new and the old 4th District will have in common,” he said.
“People come together to work for common goals,” he said. “I think they’ll find that Al’s a decent guy, that he’s bright and he’ll listen to their problems.
“The main thing is that if we can talk to each other, and associate with each other, we can get these problems solved,” Broadwater said.