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Maryland, Virginia in 2 States of Mind

On Nearly Every Issue, Legislatures Have Contrasting Viewpoints

By Michael D. Shear and John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 17, 2005; Page C07

Communities can be measured by the sweep of their land, the height of their buildings or the laws their politicians make. On that last count, Maryland and Virginia are different places indeed.

In Annapolis, the Democratic-majority legislature voted this year to allow gay couples to make health and funeral decisions for one another. Virginia's Republican-controlled assembly kicked off a push for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

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During the session that ended Monday, Maryland lawmakers voted to raise the state's minimum wage by a dollar, to $6.15 an hour. A similar bill in Virginia got two votes in a Senate committee a few years back.

Maryland lawmakers want air travelers to take off from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport to honor the liberal Supreme Court justice. In Prince William County, motorists drive on Ronald Reagan Memorial Highway.

"Maryland and Virginia were members of the original 13 states. In any baker's dozen, there's apt to be one slightly irregular muffin," joked Charlie Davis, a Virginia lobbyist who represents tobacco, beer and gambling interests. "The challenge is identifying which it is."

He added: "Given the ideological split, God probably got it right putting the Potomac where it is."

The neighboring states share some things, of course: traffic, proximity to the nation's capital, love for (or disappointment in) the Redskins and, now, the Washington Nationals baseball team.

And neither state is monolithic. There are conservative politicians from Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore, though liberals from the Washington-Baltimore corridor tend to carry the day. Virginia has its liberals from Northern Virginia and Richmond as well as conservatives from the Shenandoah Valley and the southwest.

"In Virginia, you've got essentially one liberal area, with scattered pockets elsewhere," Allan Lichtman, a historian at American University, said of Northern Virginia. Maryland has two dominant liberal bases for lawmakers: Baltimore and the Washington suburbs.

But for those without a global positioning device handy, the best way to know where you are is to find out which state laws you have to follow.

From slot machines and guns to stem cell research and abortion, there's hardly an issue that lawmakers in Maryland and Virginia see the same way. In fact, lobbyists, legislators and longtime observers of politics in both states say many of the bills that pass in one place would have little hope in the other.

"It's like Virginia is a very stern daddy and Maryland is a very compassionate mommy," said Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert).

"So what he's saying is we're Ward Cleaver and he's June?" responded Virginia House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem). "I guess the analogy fits. The real thing here is they see the people as children who need to be taken care of. In Virginia, we see people as being able to take care of themselves."

Griffith, who represents part of Virginia's rural west, said his state is progressive. He said, for example, that gay couples already have the rights to make legal decisions for their partners based on common-law contracts. But he concedes that there are strong philosophical differences.

"We feel much stronger that we should not encourage the march of socialism," he said.

Political differences also crop up in the executive mansions. Virginians elected Democratic Gov. Mark R. Warner in 2001. Marylanders chose Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. a year later.

Still, it's the lawmaking that helps define the states and the people who live there.

Maryland's legislators have required trigger locks for new handguns and have banned assault weapons. In Virginia, people who hold concealed-weapons permits may carry their guns into recreation centers, libraries and the state Capitol. Each year, the legislature comes within a few votes of allowing guns in bars.

"I live in Virginia. I certainly understand the culture of the Confederacy that still lingers," said Chad Ramsey, who oversees state lobbying efforts in Maryland and Virginia for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

Ramsey's group gives Maryland's legislature an A-minus and Virginia's a C-minus. He said lobbying is much harder in Virginia, which is home to the headquarters of the National Rifle Association.

"In Virginia, we're playing defense for the most part," he said.

It's very much the reverse for Michele Combs, the national spokeswoman for the Christian Coalition. Her organization feels right at home in Virginia, where preachers Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell live.

"As far as the statehouse, we are a lot more successful down in the Virginia legislature," she said with a laugh that suggested an understatement. "Our Maryland Christian Coalition chairman is very, very frustrated because of what happens in Annapolis."

What happens is this: Abortion restrictions are defeated; a gay rights bill is passed; a gambling measure nearly succeeds; and a ban on explicit videos dies in committee. Meanwhile, in Virginia, lawmakers have approved waiting periods and other abortion restrictions; gay rights were turned back; and penalties were increased for watching pornographic videos in a car.

Combs, like some others, attributes the difference to geography and history.

"Most of Virginia, in their thinking, their political thinking, is the South," she said. Virginia politicians gather in Richmond, the home of the Confederacy, to debate and decide. "It's a very Southern city, and they vote that way."

But Combs said her organization does not write off Maryland.

"We didn't get to where we are now just from giving up," she said. "It's just a challenge."

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