Governors Weigh in on Western Counties’ W.Va. Plea, as Maryland Lawmakers Back Away from Issue

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) held a press conference on Friday welcoming three Maryland counties to join the Mountain State. “Come and join the team, we would welcome you in every way, and you sure as the dickens won’t ever regret it,” Justice said. But the fledgling effort was already losing support in Maryland. Photo from the West Virginia governor’s office.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) said Friday that he would welcome three Western Maryland counties to the Mountain State “with open arms,” and that he was working with legislative leaders to call a special session soon to pass a resolution and make the offer official.

“We want everyone to always know that we are absolutely standing here with open arms. We’d welcome, absolutely, these counties and we’d be tickled to death to have them,” Justice said, sitting at a wooden desk and flanked by the West Virginia and American flags at a televised press conference.

He was joined by West Virginia Speaker of the House Roger Hanshaw (R) and Senate President Craig Blair (R), who also supported the secession of Garrett, Allegany and Washington counties to their neighbor.

In extending their invitation, the West Virginia lawmakers highlighted the state’s embrace of energy industries including fracking and coal, permissive gun laws and abortion restrictions — “all the good stuff,” as Justice put it.

But the trio’s press conference came as a similar number of lawmakers in Maryland disavowed the proposal.

Sen. Paul D. Corderman (R-Washington) issued a statement on Friday “to be clear” on his position on the issue.

“As a representative of a majority of the population in Washington County, I have no interest, nor do I think a majority of the constituents we represent have any interest, in leaving the state of Maryland,” Corderman said. “I have not attended any meetings with the leadership of the state legislature of West Virginia nor have I been involved in any discussions with members of the state government of West Virginia regarding this topic.”

On Thursday, when two letters from Western Maryland lawmakers — including the chair and vice chair of the Washington County delegation — were revealed publicly, Del. Neil Parrott (R) said in a Facebook video that the entire delegation had agreed on the topic.

In his Friday statement, Corderman added that he is “grateful to live in the state of Maryland where Governor [Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.] has prioritized the concerns and values of Washington County during his two terms in office” and for the millions of dollars in funding allocations from the governor and General Assembly that will “help improve our County as a whole.”

House Minority Leader Jason C. Buckel (R-Allegany) said Thursday that he’d supported a nonbinding referendum of Western Maryland voters, but not the secessionist letter that included his e-signature.

“I am not in support of attempting to institute any process at this time to facilitate any transfer of Allegany County to West Virginia,” Buckel wrote in a letter to other members of the Western Maryland delegation on Friday. “…I believe, clearly, that we have allowed ourselves to move too far, too fast on this issue, motivated by the political calendar of our counterparts in West Virginia rather than by a prudent strategy.”

Buckel still expressed concern about western counties’ economic future.

“Many of the policies that emanate from our General Assembly make the prospects of growth and prosperity for Western Maryland extremely difficult. It is very common for many of our citizens and businesses to look south or west to the few areas of West Virginia that have experienced some growth and prosperity, including the Morgantown area and Martinsburg region, and believe that we too could succeed if freed from the political control of metropolitan Maryland,” Buckel wrote.

He suggested to the other Western Maryland lawmakers that their time would be best spent from now until the end of the legislative session pressing for the passage of recommendations from the Task Force on the Economic Future of Western Maryland, which he co-chairs with Sen. George C. Edwards (R-Garrett).

Though written from Buckel’s point of view, the letter is also signed by Edwards.

Hogan said on Friday that the letter released Thursday wasn’t the right way to go about airing grievances.

“I think it’s a mistake, but I think it was really just to gain some attention,” Hogan told Fox45 in Baltimore. “I understand the frustration of people in Western Maryland who sometimes feel out of step, maybe neglected or forgotten by an increasingly more progressive legislature that doesn’t somehow relate to some of the folks in our rural areas.”

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Danielle E. Gaines
Danielle Gaines covered government and politics for Maryland Matters for two years before moving into an editing position. Previously, she spent six years at The Frederick News-Post ― as the paper’s principal government and politics reporter for half that time, covering courts and legal affairs before that. She also reported for the now-defunct The Gazette of Politics and Business in Maryland and previously worked as a county government and education reporter at The Merced Sun-Star in California’s Central Valley.