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Anti-government anger fuels long-shot Maryland breakaway bid

The cars of members of Congress, including one (L) belonging to a member of the Maryland delegation, fill the parking lot outside the House
The cars of members of Congress, including one (L) belonging to a member of the Maryland delegation, fill the parking lot outside the House

By Ian Simpson

WESTMINSTER, Maryland (Reuters) - Scott Strzelczyk is fed up with what he calls political slavery in Maryland and sees one way out - creating a breakaway state, a feat that has not been accomplished since the American Civil War.

Riding a wave of anti-government sentiment across the United States, the small-town information technology consultant has launched a long-shot bid to get Maryland's five conservative western counties to secede from the state, one of the most liberal and Democratic in the country.

"We think we have irreconcilable differences, and we just want an amicable divorce," Strzelczyk, 49, told Reuters after pitching secession to the We the People Tea Party group in Carroll County, a county he hopes will be part of the split.

Strzelczyk's breakaway bid is unlikely to be a serious threat to the state, since it faces nearly insurmountable obstacles. But he is not alone. His Western Maryland Initiative is just one of several secession proposals that are emerging across the United States.

Nearly a dozen rural Colorado counties have put nonbinding secession referendums on their November ballots. A split-off proposal for southern Florida has also been floated.

Some residents of northern California want to join with counties in southern Oregon to form their own state. Liberals in Tucson, Arizona, fed up with the conservative state governor and lawmakers, want out as well.

The United States has seen hundreds of secessionist schemes throughout its history, and almost all have failed. No state has been formed by seceding from another since 1863, when West Virginia was created during the Civil War.

But analysts said the upsurge in breakaway bids was part of a larger frustration with government, including the sort of legislative gridlock that produced this month's federal government shut-down. Recent opinion polls, for example, show job approval for the U.S. Congress hovering in the teens.

GERRYMANDERING

In Maryland, secession hopes feed on tensions between conservative rural voters and more liberal urbanites, said Todd Eberly, assistant political science professor at St. Mary's College on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

But Republicans as well as Democrats have also fueled secession efforts around the country by gerrymandering, or manipulating the boundaries of legislative districts while in power to bolster ruling party support and guarantee that those who oppose them are shut out, he said.

This often leaves people in these districts feeling stuck with politicians who do not represent their views.

"It's making people with minority viewpoints in those states feel that they have absolutely no place at the table. Nothing," Eberly said.

The U.S. Constitution allows regions to separate only with the approval of the state legislature and Congress, an almost insuperable hurdle for breakaway dreamers.

Strzelczyk, a father of five from New Windsor, Maryland, told the conservative Tea Party group in Westminster, about 50 miles north of Washington, that the uphill fight for secession was essential because of gerrymandering by Democrats.

"We are basically enslaved to one political party. There is no simple way around that," Strzelczyk said in a movie-themed mall restaurant, with a life-size cutout of John Wayne as part of the backdrop.

He was also fed up with rising fees and taxes and a state land-use plan he sees as government meddling. But the last straw, he said, was the state's passage this year of one of the toughest gun control laws in the country.

Maryland's five western counties - Garrett, Allegany, Washington, Carroll and Frederick - stretching east from the Allegheny Mountains, stand in sharp contrast to urban areas centered on Baltimore and the Washington suburbs.

Census Bureau figures show the area has 11 percent of Maryland's population of 5.9 million and much of it has significantly lower median income than the state as a whole. It has a much higher percentage of white residents, compared with 58 percent of the state overall.

Garrett County Commissioner Gregan Crawford said the mountainous county had good relations with the state capital Annapolis, and with Washington, and had received extra state money for education and sports events.

"When you look at the reality of what it would take to secede, it's really, I think, a folly," Crawford said.

A spokeswoman for Democratic Governor Martin O'Malley had no comment on the Western Maryland Initiative.

Strzelczyk's effort is only a few months old and it is still largely confined to his Facebook page, where the proposal has gotten 7,000 "likes." At the meeting of We the People, he drew agreement for initiative along with questions about its practicality.

Bob Kurland, 60, an automobile transmission rebuilder, said he would support breaking away, but doubted that the Democrat-dominated state legislature would give its approval.

"My personal belief is that I will probably move to Wyoming before too much longer. I believe Maryland has reached a tipping point," he said.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Scott Malone and Gunna Dickson)

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