Mostly Democratic panel has GOP chief

Howard council vote deepens Democratic rift


A vote that put a Republican in charge of the majority Democratic Howard County Council has ignited a war of words between politicians looking toward next year's elections.

In a county viewed as a battleground in efforts to expand GOP strength statewide, Republicans were elated Monday night by the election of Christopher J. Merdon as chairman of the five-member council.

Merdon, who is running for county executive, said his selection -- the first time a minority party member has been chosen to lead the council -- "gives me an opportunity to work in a bipartisan way to forward Howard County's agenda."

But his election deepened a bitter rift among council Democrats. It also highlights the charged political atmosphere surrounding the council, where Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat and an ally of Democrat Guy Guzzone, also is running for county executive.

East Columbia Democrat David A. Rakes set off the fireworks by crossing party lines to vote for Merdon as council chairman instead of backing Guzzone.

Howard M. Rensin, the county Republican Party chairman, said that because Rakes is African-American, his move could mean more support among black voters for Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele's U.S. Senate bid.

But Democrats argue that Rakes committed political suicide by defecting after a string of ethical and legislative gaffes.

"The Republicans are putting an awful lot of store into the actions of one particular Democrat," said Wendy Fiedler, the county Democratic Party chairwoman. "This has no relationship at all to the countywide or statewide elections."

Last summer, Rakes voluntarily turned over his campaign finance records to State Prosecutor Robert A. Rohrbaugh's office after reports that, as chairman of the county liquor board, he failed to tell the other members that a liquor license applicant was his campaign treasurer. A county ethics board cleared Rakes; no state charges were filed.

Rakes has also irked fellow Democrats by inexplicably reversing positions on several sensitive council votes.

Although the council chairmanship is largely an honorary post, it is considered an important symbol.

"It is a significant role," Merdon said, "because, with the support of two other council members, you really can change the agenda for the county."

Guzzone denounced Rakes' vote for Merdon. "It is no secret that Mr. Ulman and I did not rush to Mr. Rakes' defense through his well-documented missteps. Mr. Rakes has made it abundantly clear he is upset with us for not defending him. This is payback time," Guzzone said.

Rakes rejected that, saying, "Guy was off base." He labeled Guzzone's comments as "unfair and uncalled-for. We have the right to vote for who we want to." He said Guzzone's charges were "unfounded, untrue and unnecessary."

Later, however, Rakes said he was offended at the council's July 28 meeting when Ulman criticized his vote on a moderate-income housing issue on which Rakes reversed himself and sided with council Republicans. At that meeting, Ulman accused Rakes of failing to understand the legislation and said his constituents "should be embarrassed for him."

"It was very condescending. I took it very personally," Rakes said. He said he voted for Merdon to be chairman because "I think the chairman should have stepped in and worked that out."

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