Republican John Klocko III is attempting to capitalize on what he sees as a groundswell of public dissatisfaction with the county government to unseat four-term incumbent Virginia Clagett, D-West River, in the District 7 council race.
But while he is making a strong first impression, most observers agree they would be shocked if he succeeds in upsetting Clagett, whose name has become almost synonymous with farmland preservation and protecting the rural way of life in South County.
Klocko, 33, knows he is up against a South County institution and is trying to equate Clagett's legacy with big spending, mysterious back-room Democratic politics and complacency.
"Her strength is really illusory. Many voters are just fed up with this council," Klocko insists. "In her role as chairman of the council, she has abdicated the County Council's authority over spending to (County Executive) Jim Lighthizer in the last eight years and allowed him to jack property taxes up 100 percent in that time."
Total tax revenue has increased 115 percent during the Lighthizer administration. But thanks to an increase in the number of county households over the same period, the property tax bill has increased 55 percent per household, while household income has grown 59 percent.
Klocko's "Time for a Change" campaign flies directly in the face of Clagett's "Let's Reinvest in Her 16 Years" campaign, which touts the South County Democrat's record on the environment and constituent service. The burden of proof that times really do need changing is clearly on the young Crofton lawyer's side of the bench.
Like most of this year's political candidates, Klocko "absolutely" supports the rationale for the property tax rebellion, but does not support the tax cap. He says it would hurt the county's bond rating and could tie the government's hands during inflationary times.
Still, Klocko, more than any other candidate, has patterned his campaign platform after the anti-tax, anti-incumbent rhetoric of Anne Arundel Taxpayers for Responsive Government. Klocko proposes a voluntary limit on tax revenues at 5 percent, provided personal income goes up, and blames incumbents -- all of them Democrats -- for the current property tax revolt.
Like AATRG head Robert C. Schaeffer, Klocko says his interest in county politics grew out of the suspicion that the all-Democratic council has turned into a "Democratic club" composed of seven council "kingdom-builders" spending other people's money to buy constituent services.
While working with the council during comprehensive rezoning as head of both the Greater Crofton Council and the Eastern Bypass task force, Klocko says he was disturbed because he thought most of the council's decisions were made behind closed doors. He concedes, however, that the council's ultimate decisions on rezoning in the Crofton area and its opposition to the bypass, which would reroute some Washington Beltway traffic through Anne Arundel, were to his liking.
Klocko's reform platform proposes a three-term limit for council candidates; the elimination of the "supplemental budget" from the budget process; revoking a bill allowing senior county officials, including council members, to retire with full pension at age 50; and legislation calling for clarity in legal notices published in local newspapers.
Clagett, 46, rejects Klocko's reform crusade as political opportunism.
"It's only since he's been running for office we've been at odds," she says.
The four-term council member says she would have "no problem" with the three-term limit if the public supported a charter amendment, but she chided Klocko's rationale for proposing it.
"Change for change's sake is not a good philosophy to espouse," Clagett says.
And she tags Klocko's opposition to the supplemental budget, which allows the council and county executive to add items to the budget after public hearings are over, as "the wrong subject for a reformer to hang his hat on."
The whole purpose of the supplemental budget, she says, is to add items requested by the public during the hearings. Examples include the Crofton Media Center, Shady Side ball field lighting and the new South County paramedic unit.
Clagett stands on her record, which she says demonstrates a history of controlling growth, protecting the environment and fiscal conservatism, and has earned the endorsements of environmental and farming interest groups.
But Schaeffer lumps Clagett together with the rest of the council, complaining it has turned public review of the budget process into a "sham."
"Virginia Clagett, she's about as fiscally conservative as this entire council has been," he says.
Klocko will need need a major surge in Republican voting to win in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 1.16 to 1. He hopes the AATRG and County Executive candidate Robert Neall can provide that for them.
In his "best case" scenario, Klocko campaign director Michael Lindsay says, they could edge Clagett out with 52 percent. But he admits that may be wishful thinking.
"We knew from the outset that we were tilting at a windmill," he says.
"But we're not like Don Quixote; we know it's a windmill and we've got a strategy to tilt it."