Republican candidates don't make new waves

Primary was stern test for commissioner hopefuls

Carroll County

October 30, 2002|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

The most nerve-racking moments have already passed for the three Republicans seeking Carroll County commissioner seats.

Dean Minnich, Julia Walsh Gouge and Perry L. Jones Jr. fought their way through a brutal 10-candidate primary to win their party's nominations.

But the seven weeks since have been easy by comparison, with the remaining candidates agreeing on major issues and even many Democrats saying privately that Republicans probably will capture at least two seats on the three-member board.

"As I said then, the primary was the most important election in deciding the county's future," Minnich said. "Fortunately, the voters got what the most important issues were. Now, it's just a matter of assembling the right team."

Republicans hold several numerical advantages heading into Tuesday's general election. First-time candidate Minnich and incumbent Gouge both received more than 9,000 votes in the primary Sept. 10, unusually high totals for the county.

Though Jones received fewer than 7,000 votes, he represents a party that has a 10,000-member advantage over Democrats among the county's 85,000 registered voters. Republicans have swept the past two commissioner elections.

"I just look at the experience of our candidates, and I believe they're so much better qualified than the Democrats," said Robert Wolfing, chairman of the county's Republican State Central Committee. "We have a person who's been commissioner for 12 years, two who have been mayors and a guy in Dean who's been around for decades and knows the county inside and out."

Candidates on both sides have suggested that voters can't lose, no matter what combination they select.

Such talk would have been unimaginable in the primary campaign.

During that race, Gouge and Minnich faced claims that they were closet Democrats from the conservative wing of the party, which had dominated county politics in recent elections. Many dismissed Jones as a long-shot because he had been a Democrat until earlier this year and because he had little name recognition in populous South Carroll.

But a mailing to thousands of Carroll residents the week before the primary by an organization called Responsible Republicans of Carroll County crystallized the notion that Gouge, Minnich and Jones represented a moderate ticket and a significant alternative to conservative incumbents Donald I. Dell and Robin Bartlett Frazier and property rights activist Ed Primoff.

In a result that stunned many county political observers, the moderates swept to victory with Frazier finishing sixth and Dell seventh, both thousands of votes behind.

Gouge, 62, faced perhaps the sharpest attacks during the primary season. Her harshest critic, Primoff, accused her of selling out her conservative supporters to curry favor with Gov. Parris N. Glendening. Gouge didn't back away from the fight, arguing that Dell and Frazier had let growth race ahead of county infrastructure and saying the commissioners must make better efforts at compromising with state leaders.

She found vindication on primary day when she far outdistanced her longtime foils.

Gouge has spent the ensuing weeks sparring with the two lame ducks, saying they shouldn't cram significant policy decisions into the last weeks of their terms. She drew a loud ovation at a meeting last week when she read a letter signed by all eight commissioner candidates that asked Dell and Frazier to leave a series of land-use decisions to the next board.

The conflicts have helped Gouge remain visibly separate from an incumbent board that seems unpopular with county voters.

"I think it probably follows what I've done throughout my term," she said. "I don't know if being involved in conflict is ever a true advantage, but I think people respect me for saying enough is enough."

Given the similarities between the remaining candidates' ideas, Gouge said her experience will be an advantage.

"I can hit the ground running at a much faster pace than the others," she said. "It's one thing to read about issues in the newspaper, but it's another thing to have actually gone through them."

Minnich, 62, was the leading vote-getter in the primary, but the longtime newspaper columnist and editor has since faced criticism that he hasn't presented enough specific proposals. Minnich finds such criticism hard to understand.

"If I say I'm going to trust people and involve them in the government process, then how can I turn around and say I have the answers to every problem?" he said.

"I have to leave some room for them to come up with ideas and answers that no one may have thought of to date."

Minnich has said throughout his campaign that he would start his term by convening groups of residents to reconsider the tenets of the county's master plan. Policies on growth and other major issues would flow from those meetings, he says.

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