In northern Montgomery County, residents feel pinched and perplexed

Montgomery County's Republicans are almost completely shut out of government power. The county's eight state senators, 24 delegates, nine council members and the county executive are Democrats. But Damascus is different.
By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 24, 2010; 7:08 PM

Squeezed between a macaroni-and-cheese discount bin and six self-checkout stations at the Damascus Safeway, Jill Ochs and two friends have their Bibles opened to Galatians 6. The lesson is Doing Good to All. "God is not mocked," it reads, "for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap."

Ochs is as comfortable in this conservative rural enclave in Montgomery County as she is unsettled about the politics that surround her, locally and nationwide. "I'm not pleased. We don't share the same values and morals, based on their votes," she said. "I hope there's a big turnover this year - at all levels of government."

With economic distress and voter dissatisfaction shaping contests across the country this election cycle, she could be in luck nationally, at least in the House of Representatives, where polls show the GOP primed to take over. Not so in Maryland, where Democrats in Montgomery and Prince George's County are all but certain to retain their tight grip after Nov. 2 and Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley is leading in his rematch with his Republican predecessor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

Montgomery's Republicans are almost completely shut out of government power. The county's eight state senators, 24 delegates, nine council members and the county executive are Democrats. A pair of planning board members and an appointee who oversees the sewage system are Republicans, but they got their jobs through a kind of arrangement for non-Democrats.

But Damascus is different. Thanks to geographic realities and political deal making, Republicans outnumber Democrats within a set of jury-rigged boundaries on Montgomery's northern edge. Out of the county's nearly 1 million residents, 5,809 Republican voters living here amid the soybean and corn fields lucked into having a member of Congress from their own party.

"It's a red corner, for which I'm very thankful," said Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a nine-term Republican whose 6th District rambles from south of Pittsburgh to east of Baltimore and includes a thumb-shaped bit of territory in Montgomery. While the county "may be predominantly blue," Bartlett said, "that doesn't mean there aren't a lot of red people there."

It's no Republican monolith. The party breakdown in Montgomery's piece of the 6th District - from the county line to south of Damascus - is 40 percent Republican, 39 percent Democrat. But that's far less blue than the rest of Montgomery, where Democrats have a commanding 56 percent to 21 percent advantage. Independents are just over 20 percent in both the Damascus enclave and the county as a whole.

But the pace and tenor of the Damascus area add to a sense of political and cultural distance that is more tangible than its location less than 30 miles from Montgomery's border with the District might suggest.

On a recent day at Tom and Ray's Restaurant on Main Street, a police officer, a pastor, a retired steel fabricator, a glass blower, a real estate agent, and a host of farmers and former farmers gathered for their daily or weekly rituals at a neighborhood hub that opened in 1960.

There's an easel with a Damascus High School Hornets poster up front to honor the hometown football team that dominates night life on Fridays and baby pictures of co-owner Gary Bellison's kids (and deceased co-founder Tom's grandkids) on the corkboard behind the counter.

"The upper county provides sort of a pause," said Tim Simpson, who works nearby and comes in for breakfast on Tuesdays. Fellow parents - many of whom must inch their way down Route 27 in the morning along with commuters from Pennsylvania - can lead harried existences.

Damascus offers "a respite, a calm feeling compared to the rest of their lives," said Simpson, whose 18 years in the community still make him something of a newcomer. "When they get home, they feel like this is a quieter, safer, more restful arena."

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