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Harris Jones & Malone: Spotlight on Senator George Edwards

Senator George C. Edwards speaking on the floor

According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau statistics, Maryland ranks as the wealthiest State in the United States of America.  With a median household income of $73,538 from 2009-2013, Maryland ranked well above the national median of $53,046. Furthermore, the U.S. Census Bureau cites that Maryland’s poverty rate between 2009-2013 was only 9.8% as opposed to 15.4% nationally. However, despite Maryland’s high rankings, many of the counties throughout the State rank well below the median household income and above the average poverty rate. Allegany County, Garrett County, and Washington County all have median household incomes well below Maryland’s median income. Allegany and Garrett Counties’ median household incomes of $39,293 and $45,206, respectively, fall below the national median income. In addition, Allegany County’s, Garrett County’s, and Washington County’s poverty rates of 17.4%, 13.9%, and 12.4%, respectively, all rank higher than the State’s poverty rate. Senator George Edwards (R- Garrett, Allegany, and Washington Counties) has represented each aforementioned County in the Maryland General Assembly in some capacity over the last thirty-three years. Senator Edwards has committed a large portion of his life to bringing attention to these glaring statistics and working to improve economic opportunities for citizens in his district. After interviewing Senator Edwards, I discovered why he enjoys being a legislator and his plans to continue improving living conditions for the citizens of his district.

Senator George Edwards was born in Grantsville, a small town in Garrett County, Maryland. As a child, Senator Edwards was involved in the family’s car dealership and garage business. Following high school, Senator Edwards attended Fairmont State College (now Fairmont State University) and played football. In college, Senator Edwards excelled both on the football field and in the classroom. At Fairmont State, Senator Edwards earned his degree in business administration, was named an all-American football player, and helped lead his football team to a National Championship. Due to his excellence on the field, including scoring the winning touchdown in the National Championship game, Senator Edwards was drafted by the Baltimore Colts. Although Senator Edwards would make it to the last cut with the Baltimore Colts and receive multiple offers to try out for the Washington Redskins, he decided to forgo his football career in order to help run the family business. After making this tough decision, Senator Edwards returned to Grantsville and began to develop a desire to seek political office.

Senator Edwards stated that his interest in politics stemmed from his love for his community and his desire to improve the conditions of his friends and family. “I love where I live and wanted to be involved. I felt one way to help the area was to get into elected office,” he said. In 1972, hoping to improve the conditions of citizens in his hometown, Senator Edwards ran for and was elected to the Town Council of Grantsville. After serving two years on the Town Council, Senator Edwards was elected as the County Commissioner of Garret County. Speaking of his transition from Town Council to County Commissioner, Senator Edwards stated, “[b]ecause you have some say in a small area, you can have a big impact on people in that small area while on the Town Council. I enjoyed that. I got the feel of how things worked and said, ‘hey why not try County Commissioner’.”  Senator Edwards stated he enjoyed his role as County Commissioner because it gave him a broader perspective and an opportunity to deal with countywide issues. In addition to serving as County Commissioner, Senator Edwards served as a member of the Maryland Association of Counties (MACo). During this time, Senator Edwards received his first introduction to the Maryland General Assembly.

As a member of MACo, Senator Edwards traveled to Annapolis once a week to discuss issues related to Garrett County. In his travels back and forth, Senator Edwards quickly realized the differences between how State and local governments operate. Citing these differences, Senator Edwards said, “On the State level, you have to get like 188 people to go along with you. A local elected official can get stuff done quicker possibly, but on the State level, you can help draw out those resources in bigger numbers.” With a newfound understanding of the General Assembly process, Senator Edwards decided to run for the Maryland House of Delegates. In his first attempt to join the legislature, Senator Edwards fell short by only 14 votes. After returning to Grantsville to once again serve on the Town Council, Senator Edwards was elected to serve the citizens of district 1A in the House of Delegates in 1983. Senator Edwards served as a delegate for 24 years, the last 4 of which he served as the House Minority Leader. He joined the Maryland State Senate in 2007, representing Allegany, Garrett, and Washington counties. Senator Edwards has also served as a valued member of the Budget and Taxation Committee during his time as a Senator.

Since joining the General Assembly in 1983, Senator Edwards has become a more outspoken and zealous advocate for the constituents in his district.  Because Allegany, Garrett, and Washington Counties are among the most rural in the State, Senator Edwards is often relied upon as a key voice on all rural issues. Over the years, Senator Edwards has consistently spoken out on rural issues and raised concerns where he feels that rural areas have been neglected or overlooked. Along the way, Senator Edwards has also learned the importance of compromise and putting partisan politics aside for the benefit of the State.  Regarding the legislature, Senator Edwards says, “[y]ou have to learn to work with people, and to me, democracy is about compromise. But this is as long as you don’t compromise your principles. If you compromise your principles, you might as well hang it up in my opinion.”  In addition to compromise, Senator Edwards ranks honesty among the top qualities of a successful legislator. “Down here, people find out really quickly if you’re not honest and that doesn’t gain you a thing. People respect you if you’re honest, even if they disagree with your opinion, they respect you. Respect goes a long way here and in any elected position. When you gain the respect of your colleagues, you can get an awful lot accomplished and that is a real important thing,” he said. With these principles in mind, Senator Edwards has gained the respect of his colleagues through the years and he has been able to accomplish a great deal. While Senator Edwards has a large number legislative achievements, he finds it hard to single out one as more important than another. When asked what legislative accomplishments he is most proud of, he responded, “I get asked that question every year. What’s important legislation or what’s the most important? They’re all important. You know they’re important to somebody, just more so to one person than someone else, maybe.” Nonetheless, what is undeniably important to Senator Edwards is the need of the State to address rural issues in his district and improve the economic livelihood of citizens in all rural areas.

In the 2016 session of the General Assembly, Senator Edwards will once again look to improve economic conditions for citizens in his district and throughout the State. With these goals in mind, Senator Edwards has introduced legislation that would establish the Rural Economic Development Program. Under the Program, businesses that use State or Federal money to locate and expand in specified rural communities would receive certain tax benefits. These benefits include 10 years during which a business would be exempt from income taxation, the business would pay no sales tax on the materials they buy to build and equip the business, and the business would get a property tax exemption for a period of 10 years. In order to take advantage of these generous tax incentives, the business must be located in an industrial or business park and have at least 20 employees.  The purpose of the legislation is to attract businesses to rural communities and encourage them to stay there long term. Senator Edwards justified concerns over the tax breaks to businesses by stating consumers will remain subject to the normal sales tax on items they purchase. Senator Edwards is confident that this legislation will help the State generate more commerce.

Senator Edwards will also work diligently with other legislators to address concerns with the State budget. He stressed that his main concerns were the structural deficit and what to do with the roughly $500 million surplus the State received after restructuring spending priorities in 2015. Senator Edwards believes this money can be used to reduce taxes or for reinvestment into programs that have been defunded in recent years. In addition, Senator Edwards believes a portion of the surplus should be saved for one time programs benefitting the State. In Senator Edwards’ opinion, addressing the State budget is the most important thing the legislature does each year. Senator Edwards’ willingness to work with others should serve as a useful tool in helping the General Assembly come to a compromise on the budget.

Outside of the legislature, Senator Edwards has been a teacher, the personnel director for a mining company, a real estate developer, and even built and owned a convenience store gas station along with his wife from 1989 – 2009. Now retired from these ventures, Senator Edwards’ passion for improving the lives of others persists. “It’s a great feeling when you know someone needs something and they’ve tried and tried and can’t get it and you can step in and help them get it. It leaves a great feeling with you.” Now a full time Senator, he plans to continue to aggressively advocate for the three Counties he represents. It is his hope that through his efforts in the legislature, he can continue to bring attention to the plight facing rural communities throughout the State. Given his record of accomplishment, it appears Senator Edwards will likely do just that as the 2016 session of the General Assembly rolls along.

By:  Kenneth N. Harris, Jr.

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