Justice said that officials in West Virginia were not “going out and looking to try to recruit counties” to join the state, but that Maryland lawmakers approached them, drawn by factors including the job opportunities and values — including strong support of the Second Amendment and antiabortion stances — of West Virginians.
In the letters that were sent earlier this month and addressed to West Virginia Senate President Craig Blair (R) and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw (R), five Republican legislators representing the three counties — which all border West Virginia — said they believe “this arrangement may be mutually beneficial for both states and for our local constituencies.”
Maryland House Minority Leader Jason Buckel (R-Allegany), who signed one of the two letters, said in an interview Thursday that he is not under any illusion that Maryland will be losing the western region to its neighbor any time soon, if ever. As a practical matter, he added, people appear to be getting “a little too excited” about the prospect of leaving.
“I don’t think there is any real chance that this would happen,” he said. “Certainly the leadership of West Virginia would love to see this happen. And it would be welcoming to us.”
Buckel said he joined the letter to support the efforts of his colleagues in Western Maryland, calling it “a cry for help” from a region that has felt slighted by liberal Democrats who dominate the legislature. He hopes the effort will push the state to respond to the requests of conservative western communities, such as by relaxing its 2017 ban on hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking.
Buckel added that he does not actually support secession, but is willing to hold a referendum in the counties to ask voters if they would want lawmakers to proceed with the idea. This would need to be approved by the Maryland General Assembly.
Democratic lawmakers on Thursday called the letters a publicity stunt.
“Congratulating my colleagues on this attention-seeking effort! But remember, viral relevance is but a vapor,” Del. Stephanie M. Smith (D-Baltimore City) said in a tweet. “You’ll still be a Maryland resident after the re-tweets subside & the side eyes will be abundant.”
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) spokesman Michael Ricci said the governor’s office had not been aware of plans by the Western Maryland lawmakers to send the letter.
“This has probably left a lot of people confused — including many Western Marylanders,” he said. “We certainly hope that the legislators will provide some clarity here.”
Local government officials in Garrett and Allegany said they were also caught off guard. Paul Clayton Edwards (R), chair of the Garrett County Board of Commissioners, said he read the letter for the first time Thursday afternoon.
“I don’t know what their vision on this is,” he said, adding that while he has occasionally heard residents grumble about wanting to be part of West Virginia, he did not think seceding was viable or reasonable. “Maryland’s got great schools, Maryland’s got great roads,” he said. “To up and leave, there’d have to be an overwhelming benefit.”
Hanshaw, the West Virginia speaker, said the letter did not come as a total surprise. For more than 20 years, officials from Western Maryland have been meeting with those in bordering counties to discuss issues related to shared government and commercial interests. Over time, he said, Western Maryland legislators have come to “feel that their interests were more closely aligned with ours.”
West Virginia’s House of Delegates has 100 members comprising 78 Republicans and 22 Democrats. Property taxes in West Virginia are lower, Hanshaw noted, and there’s greater representation for rural communities in the state government. The biggest city in West Virginia is Charleston, which has about 50,000 residents.
“Baltimore has suburbs with more people than that,” Hanshaw said with a laugh.
Blair, the Senate president, said in a statement that he would be “more than happy to welcome my friends and neighbors from Washington, Allegany, and Garrett counties into West Virginia,” adding that West Virginia offers “shared values of faith, family and freedom.” He called West Virginia “a state on the rise,” saying its unemployment levels are at record lows and its finances the healthiest they have been.
“This request is recognition of the work we have done to transform the state, and I welcome my friends and neighbors across the border in Maryland to join us as we keep moving forward,” Blair said. “With everything we offer, who wouldn’t want to live here?”
During the pandemic, residents in Western Maryland expressed resentment toward Hogan’s sweeping stay-at-home orders and mask mandates, contrasting them to the laxer rules in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Quarantine requirements and shuttered schools also caused greater hardship in places like Garrett, where fewer than 40 percent of households have reliable broadband.
Hanshaw said that while it’s “flattering to think your neighbors want to join your family,” the letters are “step zero” in what would be a long, drawn-out process for the three Maryland counties whose lawmakers want to leave.
The shifting of a state line requires approval from Congress. In recent years, secessionist campaigns from “Calexit,” the fringe movement for California to become its own nation, to Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. calling on Virginia counties to ditch the commonwealth for West Virginia in 2020, have drawn little traction.
According to historians, the last time a group of counties successfully splintered off from a state was at the height of civil war in 1863, when 50 jurisdictions in Virginia seceded to form West Virginia.
This is not the first time that the conservative counties of Western Maryland have pushed to split from the state. In 2013, a group dubbed the Western Maryland Initiative tried to garner support for the idea of secession through a Facebook page but made little tangible progress.