County executive race gets crowded

Fund raising, endorsements aimed at thinning the ranks

Election more than a year away

With incumbent not running, campaigning starts early

June 26, 2005|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,SUN STAFF

The race for Anne Arundel county executive is its early stages, with 17 months remaining before the election. But for one candidate, it's not too soon to roll out a list of Republicans endorsing his candidacy.

And a potential Democratic candidate, who knows that contenders from both parties have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, doesn't want to wait to begin raising funds.

The race for a successor to Janet S. Owens as county executive has evolved into a game of chicken, some political observers agree, with the perceived front-runners trying to scare their competition into submission with talk of big campaign funds and political endorsements before the primary season.

"There's no such thing as early in politics," said Del. John R. Leopold, a Republican candidate who announced last week that several Republicans have endorsed him, including Eastern Shore U.S. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest. "There's only late."

More money is expected to be spent in this campaign for county executive than in any other. Some candidates said falling behind on fund raising now could prove costly going into next year.

"If you're not into it now, you're going to fall behind more quickly," said county Sheriff George F. Johnson IV, a potential Democratic candidate for executive.

The urgency might result partly from the field's lack of an incumbent or an easily identifiable source of opposition.

Owens is prevented by term limits from running for a third term.

"Adding to the complications is contrasting yourself against the unknown. ... There's no history frame to compare," said Diane Rey, campaign manager for Republican candidate Phillip D. Bissett, who narrowly lost to Owens in 2002. Rey said that factor might account for the amount of money being raised.

Bissett's camp and others said they aren't concerned about the big figures and endorsements. Most of the prominent names mentioned in the county executive race are experienced campaigners who say that if they run, they won't be deterred by events so long before the election.

"If the proper candidate surfaces at the proper time, there will be more than enough money to run a proper campaign," said Dennis M. Callahan, the county recreation and parks director and former Annapolis mayor, who is a potential Democrat candidate for executive.

Rey said: "We are not as into name dropping as we are getting our organization unified."

Leopold released his endorsements recently on the heels of a decision by Anne Arundel County Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk to hire a campaign manager and try to raise more than $1 million.

The Annapolis-area Democrat made her intentions known at a local party breakfast meeting this month but stressed last week that she is not a formal candidate.

Samorajczyk said she has been deliberating for a year with her husband about running. She said the money generated by other candidates - Leopold, who represents Pasadena, Glen Burnie and Brooklyn Park, said he more than $360,000 on hand, and Johnson said he "has improved on" the approximately $200,000 he had raised by January - has motivated her to start raising funds now.

"I've been advised to get starting," she said. "This is a daunting goal. I don't take it lightly."

Candidates don't have to declare their intentions until July next year.

With that deadline more than a year away, Johnson said, Samorajczyk "stands in as good a position as anybody else."

For Callahan, the primary season presents the biggest financial challenge.

"Someone with high name recognition can run a very good primary on $150,000," he said.

In the heat of the general election campaign, especially with Anne Arundel a potential swing county in the 2006 gubernatorial race, "money is never a problem," he said.

The only candidate known to have backed out of the race is Dirk Haire, a Republican lawyer who raised nearly $179,000 from January 2004 and January 2005.

He got out after a poll he commissioned revealed that Leopold had a clear lead over him and Bissett, a former state delegate and state commuter rail chief.

Haire determined that he would have to run an overly negative campaign to contend in the primary. Immediately after withdrawing, he endorsed Leopold.

Johnson said last week that he is seriously considering a run for county executive but is also keeping his options open for an Assembly seat or running again for sheriff. He will decide after the summer, he said.

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