Democrats running tight race for 2nd District council seat

Primary could determine outcome as redrawn lines put GOP at disadvantage

Election 2002

July 26, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

James G. Fitzgerald got only 826 votes - 21.5 percent of the vote - when he ran four years ago for the Democratic nomination for the District 2 seat on the Howard County Council.

It seemed a pitiful showing then, but if the 48-year-old software engineer does just as well in the primary election this September, he could win the race in a redrawn district that covers most of east Columbia and parts of Elkridge and Jessup.

That's because another low-turnout election is expected, and if the four Democrats running this year have to split the fewer than 4,000 votes cast in 1998, anyone could win the nomination.

With five-term incumbent Democrat C. Vernon Gray leaving the council to run for state Senate, two Republicans also are running, although the district is dominated by Democrats. Just more than half the new district's 26,048 voters are registered Democrats (13,535), compared with 7,668 Republicans - a nearly 2-1 advantage.

No one knows for sure how many votes it will take to win the four-way Democratic primary - though one candidate, Michele Williams, thinks she knows.

"My husband is pretty good at this, and he's given me a number," she said, refusing to "give up" her secret.

Fitzgerald said he worked very hard four years ago but "got a little amount of return." This time, without Gray dominating the race, it will be a truer test, he believes.

"You could slip in with a plurality," Fitzgerald said. "That gives you a shot." None of the candidates is really well-known, he said.

Williams, 50, a former insurance adjuster who was the first candidate to announce for the seat in September, said her strategy is based on the need to win support from core Democrats who are likely to vote even without a contested primary for governor or Howard County executive.

She has been knocking on doors in her community of Sewell's Orchard on Oakland Mills Road and waving signs on Route 175. "I'm running full time," she said.

Williams is stressing her 19 years in Columbia and her volunteer experience, mainly on education issues. Two years ago, she served on a citizens committee on school equity. She ran for school board in 2000 but finished sixth out of 18 candidates in the primary.

Besides Fitzgerald and Williams, Calvin B. Ball III, 26, and David A. Rakes, 65, are after the Democratic nomination.

Rakes, a 29-year Columbia resident, has been endorsed by Gray, who first said he was neutral, and by the county teachers union. Ball won the endorsement of the Columbia Democratic Club last week.

Although the district's adult population is about 23 percent African-American, Rakes, Williams and Ball, who are black, hope to repeat Gray's success as a black elected official in mostly white Howard County. Fitzgerald is white.

"You shouldn't vote by race," said Jared T. Thornton, an African-American and a Democrat who served on the commission that redrew County Council boundaries last year. But all three black candidates are well-qualified, he said, and he hopes one will win the primary and the election to keep a minority presence on the County Council.

"To have five white males - I still have a problem with that," he said.

Republicans Raymond J. Bly, 52, a Jessup used-appliance store owner, and Brian Harlin, 35, who are white, are also in the hunt for the 2nd District seat.

Bly is using his Model T Ford as a campaign vehicle, cruising neighborhoods and waving. He does not want to knock on doors and disturb people, he said.

Bly, who was convicted in the mid-1980s of child sexual abuse, has said he does not expect to win. He said he wants to protest what he believes was an unjust conviction in his case, and represent small mom-and-pop business owners along U.S. 1 who are threatened by gentrification.

Harlin, who is backed by the local Republican Party, owns the GOP Shoppe, an Elkridge business that sells political campaign materials to Republicans. He entered the race recently after his Montgomery Meadows neighbor, Ananta Hejeebu, withdrew because of a family illness.

Like most seeking office this year, all of the District 2 candidates want better and stronger schools, less crime and less traffic congestion. But there are some differences.

Ball, a former employee of the Maryland attorney general and part-time college teacher, talks about his youthful energy and his ability to talk directly to roughly dressed young teens who might seem intimidating to older residents.

"I'm the kind of guy who goes up to those kids," he said, and wants to work with them and provide better mentoring, as well as recruit more police officers.

Ball said his age should not be seen as an impediment.

"Ben Cardin was 21 when he was elected to the legislature," and Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy were both also young when they began political careers, he said. "The passion burns early."

Ball believes the race is between him and Rakes.

Rakes and Williams, predictably, think Ball could use some more experience.

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