Bye, Maryland? Lawmakers in 3 Counties Float a Plan to Secede From the State.


More than 150 years after Maryland stuck with the Union, the state is facing a peculiar request by its three westernmost counties to secede.

Lawmakers from the counties — Garrett, Allegany and Washington — say their rural, conservative constituents have long been fed up with their overwhelmingly liberal and Democratic fellow Marylanders. They say they have more in common with the folks on the other side of the country road in neighboring West Virginia.

The secession plan was floated by six Republican lawmakers from the counties who wrote a letter to Republican legislative leaders in West Virginia this month asking whether their counties could join that state.

“We believe this arrangement may be mutually beneficial for both states and for our local constituencies,” they wrote. “Please advise on next steps.”

The proposal, like similar ones in the past, seems destined to go nowhere. Maryland’s top Democrats scoffed at the idea, although West Virginia’s Republican governor, Jim Justice, and top lawmakers there seized the opportunity to brag about all the ways they think their state is better than Maryland.

The idea has tapped into deep-seated feelings of alienation in western Maryland, a mountainous panhandle wedged against the Mason-Dixon line, where talk of secession has been brewing for years.

“We’re kind of ignored up here, and that’s why people are thinking West Virginia might be an option if they keep ignoring us,” said Michael Swauger, the owner of a barber shop in Grantsville, Md., a small town in Garrett County.

“We see very little from the state of Maryland,” Mr. Swauger, 65, said. “We seem to be the last county to get anything to benefit us, moneywise or roads or anything to help us.”

Mr. Swauger said, however, that he was not sure that life would be better in West Virginia than in western Maryland, which needs better-paying jobs.

“I would have to see what West Virginia would offer,” he said. “They’re not better off financially than us here.”

Others in the area dismiss it all as a purely partisan political stunt.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Mike Koch, a founder and owner of FireFly Farms Creamery and Market in Accident, Md., in Garrett County. “Redrawing state lines because you’ve got a couple of displeased constituents doesn’t make any sense. How about we unwind the gerrymandering before we upset the intention of the original 13 colonies?”

Wendell R. Beitzel, a Western Maryland delegate who signed the letter, acknowledged the proposal faces daunting odds, but said it was not a political stunt.

“We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t feel there is a strong sense of unrest and unhappiness among people in our rural area of the state,” he said.

Mr. Beitzel, who represents parts of Garrett and Allegany counties, said his rural constituents have been asking to leave Maryland for years.

He ticked off a litany of hot topics that concern them: the state’s crackdown on fracking, mask mandates and the teaching of racial issues in schools. He also described what he views as an endless stream of regulations from progressive leaders in Annapolis, the state capital, some 200 miles to the east.

“The people out here keep contacting the legislators from this region and saying: ‘Why don’t we go to West Virginia? Why don’t we go to West Virginia?’” Mr. Beitzel said. “All the legislators have been hounded from our constituents to check in on the possibility.”

Maryland is no stranger to division. During the Civil War, many residents north and west of Baltimore were loyal to the Union, while those in the eastern and southern regions of the state were sympathetic to the Confederacy, said Ric Cottom, an author of “Maryland in the Civil War: A House Divided.”

This secession movement, Mr. Cottom said, seemed driven by “Trumpian politics.” All three counties overwhelmingly supported Donald J. Trump in the 2020 presidential election, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr. won statewide.

The effort is one of a number of similar revolts nationwide. In May, residents of five eastern Oregon counties said in nonbinding votes that they would like to leave Oregon and join with their more like-minded conservative neighbors farther east in Idaho.

Residents of Northern California and southern Oregon have also hatched the idea of a state that would be called Jefferson.

The Constitution specifies that new configurations of states must be formed with the consent of the affected states and Congress, said Cynthia L. Nicoletti, a legal historian and professor of law at the University of Virginia School of Law.

So Maryland’s three westernmost counties would need the approval of the Maryland legislature, which is overwhelmingly Democratic; as well as West Virginia’s legislature, which is controlled by Republicans; and Congress, where Democrats hold slim majorities, she said.

“I find it hard to imagine that the Maryland legislature would vote to allow them to leave and thus consent to divide the state,” Professor Nicoletti said.

Eric G. Luedtke, the majority leader of the Maryland House, called the proposal “an unnecessarily divisive political stunt.”

“This isn’t a thing,” he said. “There is no process for this. So the legislators are just making this up.”

Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, a Republican, expressed puzzlement on Twitter. “This has probably left a lot of people confused — including many Western Marylanders — and we certainly hope that the legislators will provide some clarity here,” he wrote.

Credit…mikemckaymd.com

West Virginia’s legislative leaders and governor, however, eagerly embraced the proposal as an opportunity to claim that their state was a far better place to live and work than Maryland.

In a speech on Friday, Governor Justice said he would advance a resolution to support the counties’ secession plan at the next special session.

Mr. Justice said it was obvious why the counties would want to join his state, pointing to its staunch support for the coal and natural gas industry, gun rights, opposition to abortion rights and abundant natural beauty.

“We’re absolutely standing here with open arms,” the governor said. “We’d welcome, absolutely, these counties and be tickled to death to have them.”



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