Club backs Willis in race

Columbia Democrats endorse Schaefer rival

In run for state comptroller

Effect of group's decision on Md. voters questioned

Howard County

July 19, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

William Donald Schaefer might be considered a strong favorite to repeat as Maryland's comptroller, but the Columbia Democratic Club has a message for him: It's time to retire.

By a wide margin, the club endorsed rival candidate John T. Willis, Maryland's secretary of state, who Schaefer has said is on a mission from Gov. Parris N. Glendening to unseat him.

Willis strongly denies that, but he said the 54-23 vote Wednesday night is important for his campaign.

"I think that margin is significant. I hope we repeat that in the primary," Willis said yesterday.

His pitch to the club members at an appearance last week was simple.

"I'm a firm believer that party is important. I'm pledged never to endorse a Republican for president," he said, claiming to represent the "progressive core of the Democratic Party." He said he favors Glendening's Smart Growth and opposes expansion of gambling in Maryland.

Schaefer, although a lifelong Democrat, endorsed George Bush for president in 1992, while serving as Maryland's governor. And while Willis courted the club's support with occasional appearances, Schaefer did not attend events or send a representative. He did not return phone calls yesterday.

Robert C. Douglas, an attorney and Schaefer confidant, said, "Governor Schaefer's received the endorsement of [Lt. Gov.] Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, and on July 30, he'll be announcing many more. Too bad we can't count the Columbia Democratic Club in that group. I don't think he's gotten 100 percent of the vote in any election."

The club's vote might raise a few eyebrows, but it isn't likely to seriously hurt Schaefer, said Donald F. Norris, a political science professor at University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"If there turns out to be a trend of Democratic organizations around the state [endorsing Willis], all bets are off, but I don't think that's very likely," Norris said.

Old-fashioned, city-based political clubs had the power to turn out votes on Election Day, he explained, "but a suburban political club doesn't turn out votes. They're debating societies," he said, and unlikely to influence even Howard County voters.

But club President Ann Wittik-Bravmann said that although Columbia Democrats might be more liberal than some in other areas, "We do have a broad range of members."

Willis eagerly embraced that idea.

"I think the Columbia Democratic Club reflects a decent cross section of the party. Howard County is, in fact, the center of the state," he said.

Whatever the club's influence statewide, its greatest effect is local, and endorsements in several key races could influence voters in the Sept. 10 primary.

County Council candidates Calvin Ball and Ken Ulman won the club's endorsement for their races in Districts 2 and 4, respectively. For Ulman, the 47-27 vote represents his second endorsement, after one from the county teachers union, giving him an edge on Mary Kay Sigaty in a tight contest.

He said he is "very excited and honored" but is focused on the less than two months remaining before a vote. "That is so little time, we are going to work absolutely tirelessly," Ulman said.

Sigaty said she knew Ulman would have an advantage with the club because he is county chairman for Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's gubernatorial campaign. "It's hard to imagine any Democratic club in Maryland not falling in line with Kathleen Kennedy Townsend," she said. District 4 voters are "very intelligent people" - unswayed by a club endorsement, she said.

Ball beat David Rakes, 49-31, helping him even the endorsement score after Rakes captured the teachers' nod.

While Ball said the club's backing will help him, Rakes discounted it, noting he lost by only 11 votes.

Most of Rakes' votes came from the 27 new members he brought to the club in the 10 days before a deadline on new memberships before endorsement votes, he and club officials said.

In the General Assembly arena, it took three rounds of voting, but former club president Neil Quinter edged out Pearl Atkinson-Stewart another former club president, for backing in his quest for a House of Delegates seat in the crowded District 13 race.

And club members strongly backed Courtney Watson for county school board, 72-2, over rival Barry Tevelow. Watson's appeal before the vote was straightforward.

"There are 48,000 children in Howard County schools, but not one of their parents is on the school board. I think it's time to change that," she said.

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