Greater Washington may not be as recession-proof or socioeconomically fat and happy as people once thought, but if there is any great discontent with local government, the voters hid it well last Tuesday.
In most corners of the region, the electorate struck a blow for the status quo. True, the political preferences and traditions differ noticeably in Maryland, Virginia and the District. In most of Maryland, one of the last territories of Carter Country two years ago, there's been a bipartisan tilt leftward for years. In most of Virginia, the political boat is anchored on the starboard side, and best you don't rock it. In the District, you can stand for almost anything as long you stand for election as a Democrat.
So split the differences and you have the voters' message: the regionwide consensus is to stay the courses -- to go with what they've had at the local and state levels. Leaving aside Arlington County for a moment, take a look at the area's winners and you'll see that, even if a few faces may be different, the makeup is the same.
Start with Congress, where every incumbent emissary to the U.S. House from this region -- Maryland's entire delegation, Northern Virginia's two representatives and D.C.'s delegate -- was given a return ticket. In the Senate, too, the vote in each state was to return a seasoned politician: Paul Sarbanes for another term and Paul Trible to slide comfortably into the seat vacated by Harry Byrd Jr.
What the voters may realize is that however unlikely this regional caucus may seem by customary partisan standards, its members have worked well together on most local matters, especially in the House. The key to popularity is to keep airplanes, federal pay caps and cost-of-living adjustments as high over this area as politically possible.
It's difficult to know how much attention people have been paying to their representation in the state capitals -- even though the "new federalism" is placing more and more important decisions in the hands of state legislatures. In any event, neither Northern Virginia's delegation to Richmond nor nearby Maryland's envoys to Annapolis will change noticeably next year. Neither will their basic missions, which are to bring back the bacon, or at least a decent slice of it, and to uphold the costly importance of this region's mass transit system.
While there is much unity among the members of delegations when it comes to seeking help for transit in the state capitals, any Metro togetherness quickly dissolves at the local legislative level. The county and city councils and boards -- with most battle-weary members back for another round -- face continuing financial strains and constituent demands that are bound to feed new fussing and feuding over local payments to Metro, separate bus systems and regional tax proposals.
Already the local leaders have switched from running for office to scrambling for revenues, either from tax adjustments, changes in user fees or federal and state aid formulas, or from cuts in those services that they vowed to retain, at least for the duration of their campaigns.
Not everything will be old political hat. Prince George's will undergo a change of pace, as the wars between Republican Lawrence Hogan and the all-Democratic county council give way to the stewardship of Democrat Parris Glendening in the executive branch.
The greatest change will be in Arlington County, where voters put the lie to any generalities about the Potomac River's being a dividing line between liberals and conservatives. In the county, though not throughout the 10th congressional district, voters preferred Richard Davis for the U.S. Senate and Democrat Ira Lechner for Congress.
From top to bottom, Arlington's voters clearly wanted off the course -- and at the local level, they chose a new one. The county board majority will shift to the Democrats, and already the talk is of tighter controls on development, improved schools and better services generally, which you can assume means m-o-n-e-y talk, too.
There, as in Prince George's, though, the voters didn't exactly hand their new leaders any blank checks. Arlington Democrat Mary Margaret Whipple, whose victory tipped the balance on the county board, campaigned hard for county authority to establish a housing agency that could help finance improvements, but the voters said no. Prince George's Democrat Glendening, meanwhile, campaigned hard for a modification of TRIM, the flat-dollar ceiling on property tax revenue, but the voters there also said no.
These may not have been thought of by the voters as trying to have their cake and eat too, but at this point it looks more like pie in the sky.