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Maryland Voices: Western Maryland voters avoid talking about politics

Rachel Baye


In Western Maryland, politics can be a sensitive subject.

Travis Miller lives in La Vale, just outside Cumberland. He works on furnaces and drives a fuel truck. And he didn’t want to say who he plans to vote for in the presidential election.

“It's my personal right to have my personal opinion and my privacy also,” he explained. “I don't want to have a political conversation with anybody or argument just because I say I like someone else versus the other. Both of our presidential candidates are idiots, but one's better than the other.”

Sometimes asking people in Western Maryland about their political leanings is like asking for their medical records.

Michael Llewellyn, an attorney active in Allegany County Democratic politics, guessed that reticence like Miller’s stems from a desire for good manners.

"Sometimes in mixed company, you don't talk about politics, and you don't talk about money,” he said. “There's a little of that old-fashioned kind of behavior, kind of, you know, mores that still exist around here.”

But in Oakland, near Maryland’s western border, Garrett County Democratic Central Committee Chairperson Jeff Hovis said the reluctance may be about more than politeness. He recounted something his friends said at dinner recently.

“They've gotten to the point where they don't talk politics with her friends anymore because it just gets too heated or too intense or too personal,” he said.

Democrats are especially likely to keep their views close to the vest because in Garrett County, where registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats nearly three to one.

“There's a lot of anecdotal evidence that there are lots of business owners here in Garrett County who are even registered Republican but they tend to vote Democratic, and the reason they're registered Republicans is they're afraid they're going to lose business if people find out they really are Democrats,” Hovis said.

Republicans have firm majorities in Allegany and Washington counties, too, according to state voter registration records.

And across Western Maryland, that support is apparent. The roads are lined with rows of yard signs, and even a few flags, bearing Republican Donald Trump’s name.

When people do talk politics, a few themes emerge.

The first:  People want lower taxes and more jobs.

“We need to run the country like a business,” said Carl Frisby, a 68-year-old Navy veteran who lives in Mt. Lena, in Washington County. The economy and immigration are his top concerns, which is why he’s voting for Trump, he said.

At Harvey’s Florist and Greenhouse in Frostburg, Growroom Manager Bernie Miltenberger cited Trump’s criticism of trade deals like NAFTA and the candidate’s proposed economic advisers among the reasons he is backing the Republican.

“Even though he's a billionaire, he has a way of connecting and talking to the common man and saying, Come on, guys. This is what we need to do. Let's all work together. We can go through a little suffering and pain, and we'll get on the other side of this, and then we can make America great again,” Miltenberger said of the candidate.

Miltenberger made those comments at the beginning of the month, before a video documenting Trump’s comments about groping women emerged, and women came forward with stories of his unwanted advances. Reached more recently by phone, Miltenberger said he was undeterred.

“Everybody knows that Donald Trump’s been divorced three times and he loves women,” he said. “Matter of fact, I prefer that there’s a guy out there that loves women instead of wants to play with guys.”

To clarify, Trump has been married three times but divorced twice.

Gun rights are another priority for many Western Maryland voters.

“My big thing is I don't want Hillary going after my gun rights or any of my ammunition or anything like that,” said Miller, the La Vale voter who initially wouldn’t reveal his preferred candidate. He eventually revealed that he’s voting for Trump.

Gun rights are also one of the factors driving 25-year-old Logan Snyder, of Corriganville, to back Trump. He said he owns two deer rifles.

"Listening to them talk about assault rifles and the way that they compare an assault rifle to a hunting rifle, they don't seem to have the understanding to be able to compare the two,” he said.

Though Snyder acknowledged that Trump doesn’t seem to know much about guns, he said he is encouraged by the National Rifle Association’s endorsement of the Republican.

In addition to his guns, Snyder is also concerned about taxes and abortion — he’s pro-life.

Of course, not everyone is thrilled with Trump.

“Begrudgingly, I'll be voting for Trump,” said Jim Jacobus, of Williamsport. “I wish we had a better choice than that … on the Republican side, but he's the nominee so I'll go for him because I think the alternative of Hillary is going to be worse.”

Jacobus said he commutes to southern Maryland for his job. He hopes a Trump administration brings better-paying jobs closer to his home.

Cumberland resident Jon Ketzner also isn’t keen on either of the two major-party candidates. He said he voted for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary election, and in November, he plans to vote for Green Party nominee Jill Stein.

“The world is screwed up by — in my opinion — by the concentration of wealth and political power among very few people, and you know, if she had not married Bill, we would not be voting for her now, in my opinion,” Ketzner said of Democrat Hillary Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton.

But the retired actuary said he promised his adult children he wouldn’t vote for Trump.

And then there are people like Frostburg resident Karen Bonsell, who said she supports Clinton.

“Any woman that doesn't vote for her — there's something wrong with them,” Bonsell said. “Trump is anti-woman. Plain as day.”

That passion, and that sense that the stakes are higher than usual this year, is palpable when you talk to Cumberland resident Nancy Malcolm. The retired hairdresser said she’s worried about the growing costs of social programs like Social Security and Medicaid, and about the regulations that she believes keep job growth stagnant in Western Maryland.

"I want this country to be great again,” she said, tearing up. “I want my children and my grandchildren … to be able to profit from the greatness of this country, this world.”

Then again, Tynesha Jennings in Hagerstown doesn’t feel the same sense of high stakes. She said she’s not even sure she’ll vote, even though her grandfather is telling her she should.

If she votes, it will be for Clinton because she said Trump is “just evil.”

She said her grandparents were both active in the Civil Rights Movement — her grandfather in Baltimore and her grandmother in Prince George’s County — so voting means a lot to her grandfather.

“He's like, you guys better get your black ass out there and vote,” she said. “He's like, people fought for us and we need to do what we gotta do."

Rachel Baye is a reporter for WYPR's newsroom.
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