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O'Malley, Death Penalty & Maryland's Cultural Divide

Looking for a state divided against itself? In this part of the country, Virginia's the usual go-to place for such culture wars; the commonwealth's politicians have been going at each other over God, guns and gays for decades, and things have gotten so bad that folks all over the state grumble about secession.

In comparison, Maryland usually gets completely overlooked in the upstate/downstate rivalries and jealousies that pepper the news menu. But just because Maryland is essentially a one-party state doesn't mean there isn't a significant and growing cultural divide.

Today, Gov. Martin O'Malley goes before lawmakers to argue for the repeal of Maryland's death penalty, his signature initiative in a legislative session that is otherwise dominated by the grim budget situation. O'Malley has always made it clear that he personally opposes capital punishment, but he, like Gov. Tim Kaine across the Potomac, has also always contended that he will enforce the law of the state even if he disagrees with it. Now, O'Malley is trying to persuade legislators to take a stand against the ultimate sanction either on moral grounds or because a state study has found that the death penalty is used inequitably.

A Baltimore Sun survey of state senators finds that O'Malley faces a tough road, with 19 senators favoring the governor's repeal effort and 24 senators prepared to vote against it. Four senators wouldn't tell the newspaper how they intend to vote.

Now here's your Maryland cultural divide: That split over capital punishment is not based primarily on party, though only Democrats are supporting O'Malley's bill. Nor is it based mainly on race, though all of the black senators support the repeal. No, the most interesting and possibly most determinative factor in this split is geography--only one senator from Montgomery County, Rob Garagiola from Germantown, and only one from Prince George's County, Senate President Mike Miller (whose district includes all of Calvert County) are listed as voting to keep the death penalty.

As in Virginia, an alliance of city dwellers and residents of suburbs with affluent and highly-educated populations has become a surefire source of liberal positions on social issues, while Maryland's rural and more conservative suburban residents are represented by politicians who are more likely to be anti-abortion, pro-death penalty and strongly in favor of gun rights. In Maryland, that increasingly means that the senators and delegates from the large Washington suburban counties side with those from Baltimore City to form a dependable bloc on most social issues. In the case of the capital punishment vote, 17 of the 19 Yes votes for O'Malley's proposal are from those three jurisdictions (the other two are from Anne Arundel County and Baltimore County, the suburban area that surrounds the city.)

But also as in Virginia, there are issues where that seemingly natural connection between Baltimore and the D.C. suburbs snaps apart. The two areas are rivals for transportation and school funding, and far more so than in Virginia, Maryland's two major population centers compete for political power in the state capital. The power divide in Richmond is much more urban vs. rural, whereas in Annapolis, the story of the next few years will be that of Baltimore trying to hold on to its traditional stranglehold on state power against the surging demographic dominance of the Washington suburbs.

All that lies in the future; for today, the question is whether O'Malley can win a few votes and keep his repeal drive alive. That doesn't seem likely, but the governor may seek instead to bypass the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, where past efforts at repealing the penalty have ended, and take his battle to the full Senate. There, he'll have to reach out not only to Republicans, but, perhaps even more challenging, to parts of the state where Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George's are considered alien territory.

By Marc Fisher |  February 18, 2009; 7:42 AM ET
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I have worked on some mean streets in urban areas where God would be afraid to go. Always dress so as not to arouse envy, and carry a 24" pipe wrench. I have had conversations with people who would openly brandish weapons and ask me about it. I would say what gun, and if asked again say it was none of my business. I see trouble and avoid it. Not all are so lucky.
I've know in passing people killed by accident, killed over 25 cent crack debts, killed for giving a look, killed for being unlucky, killed in robberies..
There are people who have killed multiple times with no remorse. You know them, give them a nod and stay away. You are not part of their game.
If the law has a chance to put them down just do it. You want to save them become a C.O. Watch your back though.

Posted by: llawrence9 | February 19, 2009 10:35 AM

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