Political might may not be enough to win District 4 race

Well-funded Ulman faces Sigaty in council race

Howard County

September 08, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Can a lightly funded, word-of-mouth campaign beat a political juggernaut in 2002 America?

"We'll find out on Tuesday. I don't think it's possible to do overkill," said a nervous Ken Ulman, the 28-year-old County Council candidate from River Hill who seems to have all the advantages in his District 4 Democratic primary battle with 52-year-old Mary Kay Sigaty.

He may be thinking about the history of what may be Howard County's most politically liberal area - where outgoing council member Mary C. Lorsung (a Sigaty supporter) pulled off such feats in 1994, but Ulman is leaving nothing to chance.

He raised $50,290 by Aug. 26 - nearly five times more than Sigaty's $10,297. A veteran of President Bill Clinton's 1996 campaign and Gov. Parris N. Glendening's re-election campaign in 1998, Ulman worked for the Glendening administration and learned public speaking and how to campaign.

He's won all the normally coveted endorsements, from County Executive James N. Robey to The Sun.

He's got twin cable television ads running 30 times a day for two weeks, poll results on how his message is being received, polished direct mailings that show his baby daughter, Madeline, and feature his wife, Jaki, and brother Doug.

His father, Louis Ulman, has a prosperous law firm in Columbia and a network of old friends in the town that Rouse built who are also helping.

And Ken, who was born and raised in Columbia and extols its progressive tradition as his campaign mantra, does grass-roots campaigning, too.

"We've knocked on more doors than any of our opponents," Ulman said, and he uses a team approach to connect with whomever answers the door.

He's got a pleasant, open face. He's articulate, stays on message - and doesn't fold under criticism.

An obviously hostile question about featuring his family members in his advertising delivered at a packed Wilde Lake forum last week brought a quick reply that defused the barb.

"I guess that wasn't a supporter," he quipped to laughter.

`One-of-a-kind place'

Still, according to Donald F. Norris, a political science professor at University of Maryland, Baltimore County and a former Howard County resident, west Columbia "is almost a one-of-a-kind place," where liberal, well-informed voters are the norm rather than the exception.

"Mary Lorsung's endorsement means a lot in Columbia, particularly among Democratic primary voters. This is one of those races where money and slick advertising might not trump grass-roots politics."

Sigaty said she's not discouraged, because she knows how politics in Wilde Lake and environs work.

"Let's just look at the number of people in the room [Thursday] night," Sigaty said about the standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 people who came to hear the two Democrats and Republican Joan Lancos, 48, speak at Slayton House last week.

"That tells you what it's like to live in this district. In many places in District 4, there are people who came to Columbia to help build Columbia. They're still plugged in to local government," she said.

In a primary where 2,500 votes could - and have - won the election, Ulman's advantages can be beaten, Sigaty believes.

"Having lived here as long as I have [30 years], I speak a common language with the voters. I am the District 4 voter - that's how I see myself," she said. "It really comes down to whether or not the electorate values community connectedness."

Victorious underdog

Such a connection to the community might have been what got Lorsung through her first County Council campaign eight years ago, when she faced James B. Kraft, a politically active Democrat with a treasury three times the size of hers.

Kraft claimed friendship with every Maryland political luminary from the two U.S. senators to Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, yet he lost the Democratic primary 2,388 to 2,167 - despite Lorsung being in Wisconsin for the final week of the campaign watching over her dying mother.

That November, Lorsung, with a final campaign treasury of $7,212, beat Republican Riaz Rana despite his spending $78,253 of his own money.

Sigaty, a former teacher with a long track record of involvement in village and county issues such as school equity and redistricting, feels she comes from the Lorsung tradition of involved community action by citizens who aren't planning a political career.

But every candidate is different, as is every political race, something that Ken Ulman knows very well.

However the election turns out, Sigaty and Ulman both agreed at the Wilde Lake forum that as Democrats, they would support whoever wins in the general election campaign.

As both await the results of their first campaign, the suspense is building.

"The greatest poll is Tuesday. Nobody is more curious about the answer to the question than me," Ulman said.

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