Aberdeen mayoral race heats up

Likely military job boom fosters crowded contest for office


When the white signs began popping up around Aberdeen, asking in big black letters, "Who is Fred Simmons?" some thought it was a prank on the popular resident, who owns a State Farm insurance agency down the road from City Hall.

But Simmons said the signs - which he called a name-recognition campaign - are no joke: He wants to be mayor of this east Harford County town. So does a 69-year-old former City Council president. And so does a former head of the county's NAACP chapter.

Meanwhile, Mayor Doug Wilson, the much-maligned four-term incumbent, says he's not backing down from the challenge.

For the first time, four candidates are vying for the top spot in this growing military town of 14,000, which has never seen more than two candidates run. With an unprecedented boom coming as the county's largest employer, Aberdeen Proving Ground, gains thousands of jobs through a national base consolidation, the challengers say it's time for a change.

Aberdeen is the likely destination for an estimated 25,000 high-tech and military jobs over the next few years as a result of the Base Realignment and Closure plan - a demographic shift that could transform not just the town, but much of Harford County as well.

With the stakes increased, this fall's nonpartisan election has brought candidates new and old onto the scene in hopes of unseating Wilson, who was elected in 1998 by one vote and ran unopposed in the past two elections.

In addition to Simmons, a political novice with far-reaching connections, 69-year-old Myra Fender, a former council president, entered the fray last week. And, just 30 minutes before the deadline Friday, 72-year-old Janice Grant, who led the county NAACP for seven years, also filed paperwork to run for mayor.

The emergence of such sophisticated growth and development issues have cast small-town elections in a more serious and contentious light in recent years, said Candace Donoho, director of government relations for the Maryland Municipal League.

"It used to be that if you could get the potholes filled, keep the lights on and get the trash collected, then you were successful," Donoho said. "Now we're seeing growth and development turn a few issues into much more hotly contested races. These are not issues to be taken lightly."

Many have been openly grumbling since the spring, when Wilson squeezed out the longtime city manager and the public works director after the city was fined for excessively overdrawing its water supply. The incident ended up costing the city nearly $250,000 between fines and a study to examine the problem.

The city is now $1 million in debt, and the police union is frustrated by negotiations for a new contract.

Simmons said Aberdeen is suffering from a "leadership vacuum" caused by Wilson's ego and "lack of character." Wilson counters that if anyone should be accused of being pompous, it's the guy with signs all over town flashing his name.

"And he says I have an ego?" Wilson said.

Despite being approved by a majority of the city's elected officials - two council members in addition to Wilson - the forced resignations have been unpopular, with much of the blame falling on Wilson, according to those who follow the city's politics.

It's an unfair situation for Wilson, said council President Georgina "Gina" Bantum, who supported the resignations.

"He's the mayor, but he has a council and city staff. He didn't do this by himself overnight," she said. "The voters really need to know the whole picture."

Fender, a newly licensed real estate agent, said her campaign will largely revolve around finding homes for new residents and restoring civility to the council, which she says has been torn by partisan politics. Since losing by five votes to Bantum in 2003, she said, she has remained active in community safety initiatives, in addition to cooking macaroni and cheese and sloppy Joes every Wednesday for Bible study at the Church of Christ.

"We've come to the time that we should be reaping the benefit of [recent] development, and not letting ourselves get bogged down in petty issues," she said.

Calls for comment to Grant's home were unsuccessful, but the Baltimore schoolteacher has grabbed headlines by leading numerous civil rights protests during her tenure as president of the Harford branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which she led from 1994 until 2001.

One of Simmons' biggest assets for the city is be his growing stature in the Republican-led county. In addition to owning a successful insurance agency, he co-owns a local airport and sits on numerous city and county committees. His acquaintances include state Sen. Nancy Jacobs, Harford County Sheriff R. Thomas Golding, and Del. Sheryl L. Davis-Kohl, all guests at a recent picnic Simmons hosted near City Hall to promote his candidacy.

Simmons said he would pull back the curtain and foster communication between the Aberdeen City Council and the public.

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