Merdon, Ulman are in

POLITICAL NOTEBOOK

Watson not sure yet

November 20, 2005|By LARRY CARSON

Though Howard County's field of county executive candidates became clearer over the weekend with statements from County Councilmen Christopher J. Merdon and Ken Ulman that they are in the race, another potential player has yet to make a decision.

School board Chairman Courtney Watson, a Democrat, is mulling her choices, though Steven H. Adler, the Republican Party's 2002 nominee, said he is joining the Merdon camp.

"All options are still very much on the table," Watson said, promising an announcement "in the near future."

Harry M. Dunbar, 61, an independent Democrat who advocates slower growth, is the only other declared candidate. County Executive James N. Robey, a two-term Democrat, must leave office next year because of term limits.

Merdon, 34, an Ellicott City Republican, scheduled a formal announcement for yesterday, although he has been actively campaigning for weeks. Ulman, 31, a west Columbia Democrat, said Friday that he will run, though he put off a formal declaration until January.

"I think it's exciting that we have two younger candidates with some experience under their belts," said public relations man Roger Caplan. He worked on former County Executive Charles I. Ecker's successful Republican campaign in 1990 but vows not to get involved this time.

"With Chuck [Ecker] and Jim [Robey] it was like a second career, if you will," he said. "Now we have two people in the race who are young but experienced. They're both very attractive candidates."

Ecker, now Carroll County school superintendent, was a retired Howard school administrator when he ran in 1990; Robey was a retired county police chief.

Although officially neutral until after the primary election in September, Republican Party leaders appear to be lining up behind Merdon, who many believe will not have a primary rival.

"I'm a big fan of Chris," said Howard M. Rensin, the county Republican Party chairman. "I support him. We're doing everything we can to help him and every other Republican."

Wendy Fiedler, the county Democratic Party chairwoman, said: "Ken is only just announcing. People don't know if anyone else is going to get in."

C. Vernon Gray, a former five-term Democratic county councilman, noted that there is a long time to go before the field is officially set in July.

"I always think that in races like county executive you have candidates who emerge at the last minute," he said. "There are those who survey the field and throw their hat in the ring."

Another unknown is the role that national and state politics could play.

Democrats point to President Bush's decline in popularity and off-year Democratic victories in Virginia and New Jersey. But Caplan prefers to highlight the bevy of Howard County Republicans serving in the administration of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., not to mention contests for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

"Voter turnout will be 80 percent-plus," Caplan predicted.

The major party themes are not hard to scope out.

"The quality of life in Howard County is so outstanding, and the last seven or eight years as the majority party we've played a major role in ensuring that what was good stayed good and got better," said Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat and an Ulman backer.

But while Democrats said the 2004 income tax increase was needed to support services, Republicans like Merdon have criticized Robey for spending too freely, pointing to last year's $20.4 million surplus.

Merdon also hit the Democrats for supporting the Comp Lite omnibus zoning bill that sparked a citizens petition drive to put the issue on next year's ballot. He voted against it.

"Obviously, the County Council in their vote on the Comp Lite bill ignored the will of the people and upset more than 5,000 people who signed a petition," Merdon said. "We need to repair that disconnect and get everyone working together."

Ulman pointed to news that a change in accounting rules means the county must put aside up to $400 million in the next few years to finance retiree health benefits.

"There's not surplus anymore," he said. "That's gone."

Duncan strategy

The name of his primary election rival never escaped his lips, but an appearance by Douglas M. Duncan, gubernatorial candidate and Montgomery County executive, Tuesday night at Howard Community College was aimed at helping capture some crucial support from core Democrats in the county.

A group of elected Democrats endorsed Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley for governor this month, but Duncan tried his low-key approach on the party's grass-roots supporters.

"I think Howard and Anne Arundel counties, even in the general election, will determine who wins," Duncan said after his speech to a combined gathering of about 40 Howard County Young Democrats and Columbia Democratic Club members.

"They're critical counties. We've got to do well in these two counties to win statewide."

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