As the 2018 election approaches, Harford County Democrats, who have already seen their fortunes tumble over the past few election cycles, are scrambling to find candidates for key offices.
Twenty years ago, Democrats in Harford County had an aggressive county executive who was gearing up to run for governor, powerful lawmakers in Annapolis and a solid roster of political up-and-comers.
But today, the Republican county executive, Barry Glassman, seems politically invincible. The seven-member County Council is all Republican. And of the 11 legislators who represent Harford County in Annapolis, only one, Del. Mary Ann Lisanti, is a Democrat.
Voter enrollment numbers suggest the Democrats should be more competitive. There were 63,910 registered Democrats in Harford in August, compared to 77,081 Republicans – a not-so-staggering disparity. More than 34,000 voters were unaffiliated.
In a jurisdiction with a respectable number of Democrats, where is their political representation, and why is it so lacking?
County Council President Richard Slutzky (R) attributes his party’s success to the rural and military population in Harford. A large part of the northern county remains extremely rural. Harford is also home to Aberdeen Proving Ground, a 72,000-acre military complex located in the southeast part of the county.
Slutzky speculates that the people of Harford tend to vote for conservatives due to the traditional values held in the rural part of the county.
“These people are people that for years were registered as Democrats…but they vote Republican. They believe in hard work, they believe in the value of the family, they believe in the tenets of the constitution of the United States,” he said, “So they have a different moral and political compass than some of the urban areas.”
Slutzky adds that those stationed on Aberdeen Proving Ground often find Harford County a “delightful place to live,” and end up retiring and moving into the county after their time on-base. He believes this military population contributes to the Republican vote.
“I believe that people who are former military and who have had contract careers with the military for decades tend to be more on the conservative side of the spectrum,” Slutzky said.
But former U.S. Sen. Joe Tydings (D), a Harford County native, disputes Slutzky’s theory. He said that while Harford was once a “rural, rural county” when he served in the Maryland House of Delegates in the 1950’s, the rural areas voted Democratic.
Tydings, who is 89, attributes the partisan switch to the change in Harford’s demographic from farmers to commuters. Because of Harford’s location about 45 minutes from Baltimore, many residents today commute to the city for work. The rise in the county’s income level could contribute to the rise in Republican votes, he said.
Lisanti, who previously served on the County Council for eight years before her election to the House in 2014, claims the partisan flip in Harford has nothing to do with ideology.
“Democrats got kicked out, not over partisan reasons, but for zoning reasons,” Lisanti said.
She’s referring to a vote of the County Council in 1989, advising the Maryland Department of the Environment to include Maryland Reclamation Associates’ Gravel Hill Road property in the county’s Solid Waste Management Plan to be used as a rubble landfill site. The all-Democratic council lost three seats to “rubble-fill” opponents in the 1990 election.
Lisanti believes this piece of Harford history sparked the partisan flip, first at the county level, then in the county’s legislative delegation. Interestingly enough, Harford County is still battling a lawsuit from Maryland Reclamation Associates because after the election of 1990, the County Council took zoning actions to prevent the rubble-fill’s development, which the company argues rendered the property “valueless.”
Lisanti also theorizes that the voters of Harford County never changed all that much ideologically – not enough to cause such a dramatic flip in party representation. Rather, voter turnout continues to be one of the reasons that the Democrats can’t seem to get their footing, she said. In the 2014 general election, 88,871 Harford County voters actually went to the polls, according to the Maryland State Board of Elections.
Lisanti formally announced her bid for a second term in the House Tuesday night, with an event along the Chesapeake Bay in Havre de Grace.
Patrick Murray, a Harford native and former executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party, argues that the flip has little to do with actual ideological change and much more to do with the way Harford residents interact with their politics.
Murray says that the ideals of Harford County voters haven’t changed – rather, the hardening of party lines and the polarization of political ideologies has led residents to identify with strictly one party or the other, making it much less likely for Republicans to vote for a Democratic candidate, and vice-versa, which was the case a decade or two ago.
“If you think about somebody who is pro-life, a fiscal moderate, likes to go hunting, and likes their guns, that person could find someone in the Democratic Party 20 years ago to vote for,” said Murray, “and have a hard time finding [a Democrat] to vote for today because the party is so calcified along those lines.”
Murray, who ran unsuccessfully for a House seat in 2014, claims the Democratic Party organization in Harford is partly to blame for its own demise.
“Harford County Democrats have opportunities, but there is a lot of party in-fighting and back-biting that really prevents them taking advantage of those opportunities…if you’re a candidate running for office, you aren’t able to be sure that the party can do much to support you,” Murray said.
Murray believes that because of this disconnect among Democratic officials and party representatives in Harford, the Republicans have been able to thrive.
“The Harford County Republicans have over-achieved because the Harford County Democrats have under-achieved…there’s little excuse for Harford County Democrats not having any representation on the Council,” Murray said.
Murray also said the Harford electorate isn’t as informed as it used to be. The county’s newspaper, The Aegis, barely covers politics these days, he said, leaving voters uninformed about who they are actually voting for and why. Consequently, voters have to rely on party labels when making their decision on election day.
“Twenty years ago, The Aegis might have had two or three reporters covering local politics, today it’s maybe one part-time reporter,” said Murray. “So even if you’ve got a Democrat who might appeal to Republicans or a Republican who might appeal to Democrats, they have a harder time getting their story out to the public at large.”