Justice To Western Maryland Counties: ‘Come On Down’
CHARLESTON — Gov. Jim Justice said he was prepared to welcome Maryland’s three western counties into West Virginia after lawmakers from the Old Line State expressed interest in breaking off.
Justice, speaking during a briefing on the subject Friday morning at the Capitol in Charleston, said he would welcome Garrett, Allegany and Washington counties in Maryland with open arms.
“Come on down. Let’s do it, come on down,” Justice said. “We want everyone to know that we’re standing here with open arms. We welcome these counties and would be tickled to death to have them, the great folks of that incredible state.”
Members of the Maryland General Assembly representing Garrett, Allegany and Washington counties wrote a letter to leaders of the West Virginia Legislature last week gauging West Virginia’s interest in having the three western Maryland counties join the Mountain State. The letters were signed by Maryland legislators: Sen. George Edwards, R-Garrett/Allegany/Washington; Delegate Wendell Beitzel, R-Garrett/Allegany; Delegate Jason Buckel, R-Allegany; Delegate Mike McKay, R-Allegany/Washington; Delegate William Wivell, R-Washington.
Justice said the state never tried to solicit the Maryland state lawmakers into writing the letter or asking to join West Virginia. That’s in contrast with a previous effort in 2020 by some lawmakers and Justice himself to convince Virginia counties, including Frederick County across the border from Jefferson and Berkeley counties, to leave Virginia and join West Virginia. Justice even traveled to Virginia for a rally with Jerry Falwell Jr. to invite Virginia counties to cross the border.
“All of this came to us without us going out,” Justice said. “We’re not going out and looking to try to recruit counties in other states to West Virginia, but when the national news starts calling like crazy and all kinds of different news outlets are calling saying ‘we’re looking to you for comment,’ then we’ve got to step up and comment.”
Justice was joined Friday by Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, and House Speaker Pro Tempore Gary Howell, R-Mineral. Aside from the letter, Howell said Beitzel reached out to him about the western Maryland counties crossing the border. Those conversations help spur further meetings on the subject.
“Delegate Beitzel … reached out to me several months ago and said ‘Hey, is that offer you made to Virginia a few years ago available to us?’ I said ‘absolutely,'” Howell said. “They requested to go down to Charleston and meet with President Blair and Speaker Hanshaw and myself. We gave them a presentation and they took it back home. They said, ‘You know, we think this is what is good for our people.'”
Garrett, Allegany and Washington counties make up Maryland’s western panhandle, with more than 250,000 people, according to the most recent U.S. Census data. Allegany County is home to the city of Cumberland and Washington County is the home of Hagerstown. The three counties border West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle and Potomac Highlands, stretching from Preston County in the west to Jefferson County to the east along the Mason-Dixon Line.
“We’re all sort of one up there,” Blair said. “There is an artificial boundary that goes between West Virginia and Maryland, but in reality our communities cross over. This is a fit that would work very well for the people of both West Virginia and Maryland if we did this.”
Hanshaw pointed to the state’s record-breaking unemployment numbers, being ranked in the top 10 of states for gross domestic product growth, year-after-year of tax revenue surpluses, a major expansion of high-speed broadband, and the state’s remote worker recruitment efforts as positive reasons for western Maryland counties to join West Virginia. ABC’s Good Morning America did a segment Friday morning focused on West Virginia.
“It’s always flattering when we see recognition for what is going on here in West Virginia, making national headlines and positioning West Virginia in a place where we receive letters like we’ve received … from our friends across the border in Maryland,” Hanshaw said. “Things have progressed here in our state in the course of the last three and four years that we’ve not seen in the lifetime of most West Virginians.”
Justice also said the switch would make sense politically. The majority of registered voters in Garrett, Allegany, and Washington counties are Republican and culturally conservative.
“We’ve got it going on in West Virginia right now,” Justice said. “We are knocking it out of the park. We are a loving state that embraces our energy sectors and all the good stuff that we think is right stuff, whether it’s the 2nd Amendment, right to life, or all the things that we have here that we really believe are the foundations of what makes us who we are.”
There are still several hurdles for the counties to jump over before they could be incorporated into West Virginia. Lawmakers want to put a referendum on the 2022 ballot in those counties to gauge interest from the public. The Maryland General Assembly would have to vote to agree to let the counties go, as would Congress. But Justice said he would put a resolution before the Legislature at the next available opportunity for lawmakers to show their support for the move.
“There are steps you’ve got to go through, and I understand all of that,” Justice said. “This may be an unprecedented opportunity, and people might say this is really difficult to do. In fact, some people may regard this as impossible. I go back to my dad…who said ‘son, if it’s really, really hard, it’ll probably take a few days to pull off. If some people call it impossible, it’ll take another couple of days. But don’t drop your head. Just keep plowing ahead.’ That’s what we’ve done and that’s what we’ll continue to do.”