Talbot County politician to run write-in campaign

Mysterious letter to voters behind primary loss, he says

October 17, 2002|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

TILGHMAN ISLAND - Swept from office in a wave of slow-growth fervor that dominated local elections in Talbot County last month, County Council President Levin F. "Buddy" Harrison IV is vowing to have the last word.

Harrison, a first-term Democrat whose family owns the Chesapeake House Restaurant, charter fishing boats and a seafood packing plant, has launched a long-shot write-in campaign to keep his seat on the five-member council.

But that's not all.

Intent on revealing alleged dirty tricks that included a letter - possibly illegal - sent to voters three days before the Sept. 10 primary, Harrison is offering a $5,000 reward and has hired a private detective to identify the anonymous critics who lambasted his record in the mailing.

"I feel like I got cheated," Harrison said. "Winning a write-in campaign is unheard of, but I'll feel better about it at least for trying."

Harrison, who came in sixth in a five-seat council primary, is convinced the last-minute mailing, sent under the banner "Easton Voters for Action," swayed enough voters to make a difference.

The letter criticized Harrison's record on the council, including votes in favor of several large developments and against some low-income housing proposals, and urged residents to reject him. Harrison says the letter misrepresents his positions.

Election officials say the mailing might violate state laws that require a political action committee to register with the local elections office. Direct mail, campaign literature and political signs all must bear an authority line identifying a treasurer. The letter from "Easton Voters for Action" - a group no one has heard of - did not.

John Billmyre, an attorney who represents the Talbot elections board, acknowledged that he is investigating the mailing. Billmyre and Harrison say the state prosecutor's office is investigating as well. Officials there declined to comment.

County activists who opposed Harrison and are working for a slate of slow-growth candidates say complaints about the letter amount to a red herring in an election where voters made their preferences very clear.

Harrison, say members of the Talbot Preservation Alliance, the Talbot River Protection Association and others who have frequently squared off with developers, should consider the vote a rejection of his record.

"His record is very clear over the last four years," says Timothy Dills, a downtown businessman who supports the slow-growth slate. "Harrison's voted for everything that has asphalt attached to it. The good and bad news about democracy is if you don't get the votes, you don't win."

Harrison and his supporters say the election is an extension of a nearly four-year battle over the pace of development in a county that is known for its lavish waterfront estates and picturesque villages like St. Michaels and Oxford.

Angry at newcomers who have spearheaded the slow-growth movement - critics derisively call them "rich, retired and relocated" - Harrison says he is determined to give working-class voters a voice.

"I feel like the people who are forgotten in this county are the families with kids in the schools and both parents working," he said. `They can call me and not feel like they're talking to a stranger or somebody who's above them. This is about the plumbers, the electricians, the guys with their names stamped over their shirt pocket."

According to environmentalists and other critics, Harrison - along with Councilmen Wayne Dyott, who survived the primary, and Robert Higgins, who gave up his seat in an aborted run for the General Assembly - were known collectively as the "three amigos" for their support of continued growth in Talbot.

"Buddy has done a lot of good on the council, but we are interested in protecting and perpetuating something of value here," said Gene Mechling, a key organizer in a referendum drive to block large-scale commercial development. "He's mad at us because he and the other two were attuned to a future we don't want to see happen in Talbot."

Developers like Bob Rauch, a Talbot native who has clashed with slow-growth supporters for years, say Harrison has taken an even-handed approach to growth and zoning issues.

Harrison was targeted, Rauch says, because of his prominence in the county - the local paper frequently refers to him as "Buddy" in headlines - and because he tried to take the middle ground on the council.

"Buddy's record has been seriously misconstrued," Rauch said.

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