The snaggle-toothed strip of Maryland that juts into Pennsylvania and West Virginia has everything the rest of the state hasn't. It has rocky mountain ranges, coal mines and cow pastures. It has ancient little towns filled with old people who have never been to Washington and do not want to go.
It also has Republicans -- "Party of Lincoln," they call themselves here. They're not the majority, but they tend to win more elections here than elsewhere in Maryland. And that's what started all the fuss.
Western Maryland, which voted lopsidedly for Ronald Reagan last November, has grown so much in the last decade that it is about to gain an extra district in the state legislature. Depending on how its boundary lines are drawn, the new district could easily produce a crop of Republican legislators in 1982.
"I think it's outrageous! It's wrong, wrong, wrong in a state like Maryland, in a Democratic state, to create a district that ensures the election of a Republican," exclaimed state Democratic Party Chairman Rosalie Abrams.
So, as officials redraw Maryland's political boundaries to follow population shifts, the Democratic leader and her troops have been plotting western strategies. This involves scolding a few Western Maryland Democrats who appear content to let the new district "go Republican" if their own districts are undisturbed; drawing maps with contorted-looking district lines that pull together most pockets of moderation in the conservative region, and quietly lobbying Gov. Harry Hughes, a Democrat himself, who could intervene in the redistricting process if he chose.
The Republicans have not been idle. Maryland Senate Minority Leader Edward J. Mason, who represents the state's two westernmost counties, proposed drawing the new district in a way that many say would ensure the election of a new Republican senator -- House Minority Leader Ray Beck, now a Carroll County delegate.
The disputed territory lies in two of Western Maryland's five counties -- Carroll and Frederick, where subdivisions have begun to take root in old pasture land beyond the Baltimore and Washington beltways. About 60,000 new residents have migrated to this area in the last decade, enough to give the west claim to five of Maryland's 47 legislative districts rather than the present four.
To some, the numbers sound small. After all, the party of Franklin Roosevelt so dominates Maryland that most people consider it a one-party state. Democrats have almost an 8-to-1 majority in the General Assembly, and they managed to deliver Maryland last November to Jimmy Carter while all but four other states rushed to the Reagan column.
But as party leader Abrams explains it, the question is bigger than the west, bigger even than Maryland. "It's a symbolic thing," she said. "We should make every effort to maintain Democratic Party strength within the state, particularly when we consider the opposition we face at the federal level."
Unfortunately for Abrams, Western Maryland Democrats do not share her sense of symbolism. Partisanship has never carried much weight here. The region, with a 1.3-to-1 majority of Democrats, votes Republican in most national races, while electing a mix of Republicans and Democrats in local and state races. (Its current legislative delegation has seven Republicans and nine Democrats.)
Its elected officials tend to identify with their conservative region first, their party second. In the legislature, Democrats from the west routinely desert the party leadership to oppose mass transit and social programs, to support spending limits-- all perceived here as rural-versus-urban issues. And the region's member of Congress, U.S. Rep. Beverly Byron, was one of only three Democrats from outside the South to vote for the Reagan budget last July.
So it was not surprising to voters here when the region's two Democratic state senators announced their support for a redistricting plan that would probably send an extra Republican senator to Annapolis. Sens. Victor Cushwa (D-Washington County) and Charles Smelser (D-Frederick and Carroll) call the plan a "nonpartisan, consensus proposal," as do its western Republican backers, Mason and Sen. Edward Thomas.
"I'm a lifelong Democrat, but I work for the region," said Cushwa. "It's the nature of the constituency we represent -- people who believe in fiscal conservatism and in not being overridden by the 'Beltway Bullies,' " the Western Maryland nickname for the powerful urban coalition from the Baltimore and Washington areas.
"It's baloney to call this a Republican plan," said Thomas. "It's a plan to get one more vote for the good guys against the bullies."
There was, however, some opposition to the "nonpartisan proposal" from Democrats within the region. Carroll County New Democratic Club President John Willis called it a "Republican and incumbent protection plan," noting that it would insure the reelection of all four senators who supported it. The county's Democratic central committee called Mason's proposal a "blatant gerrymander." But only two Democratic incumbents from the region, Dels. Charles Smith of Frederick County and Cas Taylor of Allegany County, openly called for an alternative.
"All of us are conservatives," said Smith. "We're not flaming liberals out here by any stretch of the imagination. But some of us are at least partisan."
Smith and Taylor, with strong backing from party leaders, drafted lines for a new district that would wiggle along the southern portions of Frederick and Carroll counties, pulling in several old, heavily unionized communities in Frederick and the new Carroll suburbs closest to Baltimore, regions considered likely to vote Democratic. Smith concedes that the new district would also give him a good chance at a Senate seat.
The "nonpartisan" plan would group about 70,000 residents of Eastern Carroll County -- including Republican Beck's home precinct -- in a district with 17,000 residents of conservative northern Baltimore County.
Both plans are now in the hands of a special commission appointed by Gov. Hughes to draw new political boundaries for the whole state. In hopes of averting disruptive floor fights when the plan reaches the General Assembly in the 1982 session, the commission has listened closely to the concerns of incumbents and is attempting to accommodate them in the proposal it will deliver to Hughes later this month. The "nonpartisan" plan appears to have the most momentum: it has the broadest backing, and Senate President James Clark, who is also a member of the commission, has said he likes it.
But the commission has indicated that it might not embrace the plan exactly as many Western Marylanders would like. Instead of grouping Carroll with the conservative horse-farm country of northern Baltimore County, the commission may join Carroll with the Randallstown-Liberty Road section farther south, a region viewed here as an extension of Baltimore city, at least in part because it is racially integrated and includes many former city residents.
Within Western Maryland, that prospect has stirred up considerable unrest because it touches on the rural-urban split. "People in Carroll County don't feel like they have much in common with that area," said Smelser, who lives just over the Carroll line in Frederick, and now represents both counties. "There's a reservoir separating Carroll County from that part of Baltimore County. Up north, the only divider is a sign saying you're entering Baltimore County."
Leaders of both parties caution that it is difficult to predict the political personality of the new district, regardless of how it is drawn. Like the rest of the region, it will be composed mainly of so-called "Reagan Democrats," but it is not clear how they would vote in state legislative races. A recent study showed that almost 25 percent of Carroll County's current registered voters were not living here during the last statewide election in 1978, according to the New Democratic Club's Willis.
Regardless of which party controls the new district, its presence will increase the clout of rural and outer suburban areas in the General Assembly, and in that sense it is symbolic of the power shift that the 1982 reapportionment will bring to Maryland. The powerful urban coalition -- Baltimore and Prince George's and Montgomery counties, which have not grown as fast as the rest of the state -- is to lose as many as three senators and 11 delegates. Most of those seats will go to regions that share Western Maryland's rural and conservative views.
That shift, party leaders on both sides say, could have far more to do with the state's future than the number of Republicans or Democrats in the legislature.
"We lose a lot of issues in the Senate by only a couple votes," said the GOP's Thomas, speaking for the rural and conservative interests in the legislature. "If we get two or three more on our side, we could turn the state around."