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The Tentacle


September 8, 2006

When It Comes to Voting

Roy Meachum

When it comes to voting, life was once so much simpler. I'm not talking about before the flood; not the Bible's but the celebrated dousing that hit downtown Frederick bicentennial year. 1976 was the one I had in mind.

When I came barreling up the pike six years later, this was pretty much a bucolic paradise; that second word may be much too grand. I doubt the area around the Square Corner ever reminded anyone of the abode of angels. But Market Street stood newly free and clear of entangling overhead wires and the street itself had a thoroughly modern look.

The first in the street (non-capitalized) took place in 1983; it consisted of a gaggle of locals, including me, starting at the Seventh Street fountain and following Mayor Ron Young in what amounted to a downtown Frederick strut. The sight may have dismayed visitors, but what the hey! We had each other for amusement and any food that was brought along.

In The Street arrived the following year, complete with booths and music; as I recall, Sen. Paul Sarbanes showed up. I made a videotape for the Tourism Council. "Coming Home" ran in county visitors' centers for years, until it was replaced by a production more up-to-date. But no camera could hope to capture the sheer exuberance that first time.

The city had a genuine aura of neighborhood city-wide. People laughed at nothing, simply glad to be there. Kids laughed and dogs wagged their tails away. Police did not ban canine critters at first. Similarly, beer drinkers were allowed to wander around, sometimes spilling the stuff on others or each other. The carefully marked "gardens" came along, in due time.

That election season Mayor Young could have been elected king of the universe, if the vote were vested in the hands of folks along North Market Street. Looking not much different than he does right now, the mayor could have reined forever. The next year's races left his Republican challenger in the dust.

But five years later, when In The Street had joined the calendar of regular events, the longest serving mayor in Frederick's modern history left City Hall after a singularly acrimonious race. And political life in this part of the American dream was never the same. The growing number of registered Republicans guaranteed that fact of life.

In 1983, when the celebration of the New Frederick consisted of a simple stroll, electoral fates were in the comfortable hands of an organization of wise men (no women). At that time, the organization was headed by Del. James E. McClellan, with the behind the scenes assistance from state Sen. Charles Smelser. Nobody had elected them; they simply took over when state Sen. Eddie Thomas unexpectedly died. That's how political machines worked. Kind of like the Bible.

Among the begets was Richard Zimmerman, whose son beat the odds by becoming a Navy flier. In his nights, the elder Mr. Zimmerman was known for calling City Cab and distributing messages all over the community. He was, as I understand, more a "fixer" than a power broker. He "inherited" that role from Alton Y. Bennett, whose son lost his political appointment as judge shortly after I arrived in Frederick.

In those days when everybody knew everybody else, the story goes; nominations and elections were handled behind closed doors; in the grand old manner of American politics. Of course, the rooms were smoky, it goes without saying. Questioning the council of wise men carried penalties, as Galen Clagett found out.

For his temerity in not knuckling down to Dr. McClellan, who was also a veterinarian, Mr. Clagett was sent packing into retirement exactly 20 years ago, replaced by a nice guy who served a single term in the House of Delegates. After 16 years in political banishment, Galen Clagett finally won a race again in 2002. He's now seeking re-election to his House of Delegates' chair.

What has really changed since 1984 is the party makeup of the legislative delegation. Mr. Clagett is the sole Democrat. GOP state Sen. Jack Derr played the role before: he was the sole member of his party on the Annapolis delegation.

On the other hand Frederick lacks a Republican machine to match the Democrat example from the past. It may be that the Grand Old Party has had little time to form an organization that would unify. It could be Republicans can't be organized. Another choice: Few newcomers in these parts want anyone else to make their choices for them. As a result, Republican voters will choose among 14 candidates next Tuesday. The top five win.

Somewhere in my murky thinking I have neglected the broad numbers of "undeclared" in the voter registration. There are enough independents to decide every race if they but show up at the polling place. And there's the rub. As an avocation or entertainment, politics can't hold a candle to the Internet, cable television and the modern likes.

Furthermore, many people today hold a cynical view; they think their voting means nothing. Watch how few folks show up Tuesday; it's always been under 20 percent of the registered voters.

The county's Office of Elections placed a high hurdle that I must jump in reaching this year's chosen spot, somewhere on Sagner Avenue. Two years back my precinct was told to go to an unfinished part of the C. Burr Artz library. I've also voted at North Frederick Elementary School.

For years and years, I had the pleasure of reporting to the old armory. That's where Frederick's "real" votes are counted. By tradition - and because I liked it - a bowl of bean soup was my reward to myself. Pushkin and I walked over; he patiently stood outside while I did my civic duty. The elections office told me the new polling place is almost in the center of the precinct, which may be very true. It still seems a forbidding hurdle to me.

No election is complete without bean soup and that's available only at the old armory. See you there!



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