Race more open at top

Guzzone's veto of run for executive leaves Democrats pondering


Now that County Council Chairman Guy Guzzone has given up his quest for the Democratic nomination for Howard County executive, other high-profile county Democrats are deciding whether to take his place.

Former five-term County Councilman C. Vernon Gray has not ruled out running for the top job, nor has Del. Frank S. Turner. County Councilman Ken Ulman is seriously mulling over the opportunity -- though Dels. Elizabeth Bobo, a former county executive, and Shane E. Pendergrass are not.

And Gray wondered if someone from outside the political world, someone "who has not been on the firing line making tough decisions" might not be best. That is a view shared by others.

"I think Courtney Watson [the school board chairman] will run," said state Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, a Columbia Democrat who ran briefly for governor in 1994, but said he is not interested in becoming county executive. "Ultimately, I think she's the best candidate the Democrats have."

County Democrats are carefully reviewing their options as party leaders search for that perfect person to support against Ellicott City Republican Christopher J. Merdon, who has his party's backing and has been campaigning for weeks.

"My suspicion is they're strategizing, looking for who they think would be the strongest candidate," said Republican Del. Gail H. Bates.

Though Democrats deny it, Donald F. Norris, a University of Maryland, Baltimore County professor of policy science, said the situation favors Republicans, because Republicans are unified while Democrats have no candidate.

"It behooves the Democrats to get a consensus candidate," he said.

While a divisive Democratic primary could hurt the party, "if it's just a good fight, it tends to energize the party and produce a greater turnout," Norris said.

Democratic Party Chairwoman Wendy Fiedler said she is confident. "The Democratic base will be there for the Democratic candidate," she said. "We will provide the kind of candidate that Howard County citizens will know."

But while Democrats won the executive's job and three of the five council positions in the past two elections, that pattern might not hold, Norris said.

"It's going to be an interesting situation here in Howard County," he said, noting that independents often vote Republican and so do some conservative Democrats. "It won't be long, in my estimation, before it's going to be a Republican county."

Yesterday, Howard had 80,326 registered Democrats to 60,701 Republicans and 33,535 independents, said Betty Nordass, election board administrator.

Guzzone sent a letter to supporters this week saying he was dropping out of the county executive race and would run for House of Delegates in his home District 13. The needs of his wife and three children together with those of his ill 81-year-old father and his 83-year-old mother require too much of his time for an all-consuming countywide race, he said.

Pendergrass said she is delighted to have Guzzone, her former County Council assistant and neighbor, run with her on a ticket, but his withdrawal from the executive race leaves a void.

Watson said she is not talking politics now, while she is chairman of the nonpartisan school board.

"I really do feel very strongly about that," she said. "If it wasn't a nonpartisan board, it would be a different situation."

Her chairmanship ends in December. Before Guzzone's announcement, many observers expected Watson to declare for the 1st District County Council seat.

Meanwhile, Ulman will be host to a fundraiser Saturday in Columbia featuring a scheduled appearance by Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley -- an event that Ulman originally intended to bolster his re-election campaign.

"I had every intention to support Guy for election," he said. Now, he said he plans to "seriously weigh the options."

Timing is important, though several Democrats and Republicans said that with nearly a year until the primary election, the Democrats have time to organize behind someone such as Watson.

Bates said Watson "is all over the county," making appearances as school board chairman.

"I'd play that to the hilt if I were her," Bates said. "My guess is she's the front-runner. Ken Ulman has one district."

Whomever the Democrats choose, Republican Party Chairman Howard M. Rensin said the candidate will be in for a tough race against Merdon. "Anybody who runs against him is going to have a hard, hard time," he said.

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