With the proposed Windsor Mall project near Bel Air removed as Harford County's biggest political issue, the focus of this year's campaign for county executive has shifted from controlling growth to spending.
Geoffrey R. Close, the Republican candidate for county executive, is trying to paint his political opponent as a liberal spender.
Close, a former mayor of Bel Air, is in an uphill race against Del. Eileen M. Rehrmann, who won the Democratic nomination for county executive last month by a 2-1 margin over County Councilwoman Barbara A. Risacher.
Rehrmann, an eight-year veteran of the House of Delegates, trounced Risacher with the help of a well-funded campaign and support from Gov. William Donald Schaefer.
As of Oct. 21, Rehrmann had raised $225,200, with slightly more than $16,000 on hand, according to a campaign financial report filed last week. Close had raised $48,504, and had $6,344 left by Oct. 21.
Though Close is touted by his party for having a good shot at becoming the first Republican to win the county's top administrative job, he has not been able to stir up much debate in his contest with Rehrmann.
Close talked cautiously about the race. "I think we've come a long way since the primary," he said last week. He had no opposition in the primary, so he received relatively little publicity.
Rehrmann, on the other hand, won after a sometimes bitter clash of personalities in the race against Risacher.
In the executive's race, Rehrmann brushes off Close, saying he was a "ceremonial mayor," meaning one not responsible for the daily workings of government.
Close claims Rehrmann's campaign, which is expected to spend a record $250,000, would translate to a big-spending county administration.
"You can't go around telling people you're going to borrow money for everything under the sun," Close said of Rehrmann.
"I think people are very worried," about state and federal budget deficits, Close said. "They don't want the same problems here."
Look at the state government, Close said, where the General Assembly's budget adviser warned this week that Maryland faces a deficit of $322 million this year because of lagging sales and income tax revenues. Rehrmann serves on the House Appropriations Committee.
Rehrmann, who said she considers Close a less formidable opponent than Risacher, said, "I believe growth is still the number one issue in Harford County. People think we have grown too much too fast."
Rehrmann said Close, a real estate salesman who has received campaign support from local developers, "wants to get away from the growth issue."
As for state spending, Rehrmann claimed Close does not understand the budget process for Maryland's $11.7 billion fiscal plan. Mid-year adjustments are common, she claimed.
County Executive Habern W. Freeman Jr., a Democrat, has not taken a position in the Close-Rehrmann race. He said, however, that he agreed with Close's assessment that the top issue with many voters is the "cost of government."
Freeman criticized Rehrmann on the spending issue. He said he might run roughshod over his frugal policy, which has been based on an abhorance of borrowing and a reliance on pay-as-you-go spending.
Freeman's administration has been criticized for being conservative on revenue estimates. "Right now, we're showing everybody why," said Freeman.
Close may have a difficult time convincing voters that spending is the overriding issue. Unlike Baltimore County and other suburban localities, there is no tax revolt in Harford. In fact, the loudest cries in the last two budget debates have been about how the county is spending too little on schools.
Theresa M. Pierno, an activist who led the charge against Windsor Mall and who has been a persistent voice for growth control, has not lent support to the campaigns of either Rehrmann or Close. "There's concern with both of them," she said.
Pierno, a Democrat whose activism led to her defeat of longtime County Councilman John W. Schafer, D-District C, in the primary, said she is not comfortable with Close's connections to developers and that she is fearful that Rehrmann would be beholden to outside interests who helped finance her campaign.