GOP commissioner candidate aims to be Carroll's conservative `voice'

Some observers view Primoff as `divisive figure'

August 11, 2002|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Ed Primoff liked being the voice in a policy-maker's ear. A farmer who can't sell his land to a developer is a farmer with no security, he'd say. And when he was tired of lobbying, he could hop on his private plane and fly to Florida, leaving Carroll County officials to deal with the dreary meetings and constituent phone calls.

Then he sized up the field in this year's county commissioner's race and found that most of the Republicans, including some he had supported in the past, seemed too liberal for him. He tried to talk his conservative allies into running.

When they wouldn't, he did.

"There were a lot of people surprised when I entered, none more so than myself," he said in an interview at his Woodbine home last week. "I kept thinking, `What have I done?' But Carroll's conservative voice needed to be represented."

Primoff, 59, believes he speaks for those who came to Carroll County to escape crime and clutter, and speaks for those who resent Gov. Parris N. Glendening for trying to impose his Smart Growth program on Carroll.

A semiretired commercial lender, who has adopted politics as a second career, Primoff is an enthusiastic contributor to Republican causes -- positioned, he says, to help Carroll capitalize should GOP gubernatorial candidate Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. be elected. But many Carroll political observers see him as a divisive figure, someone who has helped create self-serving policies and who delights in harsh rhetoric. For example, he equates the planned population centers of Smart Growth to overstuffed rat colonies.

Primoff's arch-conservatism seems to be turning the Sept. 10 Republican primary into a referendum on right vs. left, said Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge, a three-time candidate who said she has never seen such a divided field. "I've always thought of myself as conservative, but I've been moved toward moderate, because people like Ed and his supporters are so far to the right," Gouge said. "They're ultra, ultra, ultraconservative, but what I don't understand is how, if they get their way, the average working person will even be able to afford a house in the county."

Primoff once supported Gouge, but he now dismisses her as a liberal masquerading as a Republican. Some observers say Primoff's candidacy could also hurt other conservative candidates, such as incumbents Robin Bartlett Frazier and Donald I. Dell and planning commission member David Brauning. "The conservative movement is always diluted by the entrance of one more," said Donald Jansiewicz, retired professor of political science at Carroll Community College.

Primoff moved to Carroll in 1989, thinking, he said, that he was escaping the crowded suburbia of Howard County. He had made his fortune as a commercial lender, borrowing money from banks and then lending it to aspiring business owners or homebuyers at a slightly higher interest rate.

He won't specify his net worth, but in addition to his 208-acre farm in Woodbine, he also owns houses in West Palm Beach, Fla., and in the San Francisco area, and owns two private planes. He said he plans to pay for his campaign, though he did not say how much he will spend.

Primoff the activist didn't emerge until 1995. State and county land-use policies disgusted him, and he felt farmers lacked a cohesive political voice to fight for their development rights, so he organized them as the Carroll County Landowners' Association.

He quickly became known as one of the county's most powerful behind-the-scenes players, gifted at organizing hundreds behind his causes and at uttering pungent sound bites. He was appointed to several influential county committees, and his wife, Sue, was appointed to the ethics commission.

His message remains much the same as it was seven years ago. He recognizes that county residents are worried about growth overwhelming school and water capacity, but he can't understand how cramming growth into Carroll's eight municipalities addresses those concerns. And he certainly can't fathom Republicans espousing Smart Growth ideas.

"Most of the candidates running, even Republicans, are tap dancing around the growth issue by saying, `Let's put it all in the towns,'" he said. "But the impact of high-density tract housing is the same to all Carroll County citizens, whether they be in the towns or outside of the towns, and it's got to be stopped."

He wants to keep mass transit out of Carroll County. He feels many county residents agree with his anti-urban beliefs. "Vote Your Views," implore his large campaign signs. He has gone door-to-door campaigning for himself and Ehrlich.

Cory Grzymala of Eldersburg has never met Primoff but has one of his signs in her yard. "He strikes me as a very honest person who shares my belief in conservative government," she said.

Critics accuse Primoff of preying on politically naive farmers and playing on the worst provincial instincts of county conservatives.

"He has tried to create a red herring out of mass transit and housing density, something that are clearly not issues in Carroll," said Democratic commissioner candidate Neil Ridgely.

Primoff said that if he and Ehrlich are elected, Carroll County will have a better relationship with Annapolis than it has had in years.

As for the barbed words from moderates and Democrats, Primoff said he can live with them. He won't ever waffle on his conservatism, he said, adding: "I wear my beliefs like a badge of honor."

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