Council is `A better fit,' Watson says

Ex-school board chief eschews executive run, decides to enter race for the seat in District 1


As the daughter of a Howard County politician constantly involved in parades, meetings and campaigns, school board member Courtney Watson was sure of one thing as a youngster, her brother Chris Cochran told a crowd gathered at the Elkridge fire hall this week .

"What she didn't want to do was get involved in politics," he told an amused crowd gathered to hear his 43-year-old sister announce that she is running for the Howard County Council. After months of deliberation, Watson, a Democrat, mother of three and vice president of an insurance agency, said she finally decided to run for the council in 2006 rather than county executive because it "just felt like it was a better fit."

The choice avoided a potentially bruising primary election battle with County Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat who has announced that he is running for executive.

Watson's decision to run for the District 1 seat held by Republican Christopher J. Merdon, also a candidate for county executive, continues her on a path followed decades ago by her father, Edward Cochran, former school board member, county councilman and county executive, who attended the announcement with about 75 other supporters and elected officials.

Cochran declined to say what advice he offered his daughter, beyond telling her that in his opinion, she is "by far the most capable candidate for county executive."

Watson said she followed advice given to her by County Executive James N. Robey.

"Make a decision, and sleep on it for three or four weeks and then see if it makes any difference in how you feel," Robey said he told Watson. The executive, who cannot run for re-election because of term limits, told the crowd that Watson is "a home-grown, down-to-earth, grass-roots person," who will "be a tremendous asset" to the council.

Republican Tony Salazar, who last year ran against Rep. Elijah E. Cummings for Maryland's 7th District congressional seat, is also running for the same Ellicott City-Elkridge council seat that Watson is seeking. A formal announcement is scheduled next month, he said.

Salazar, 46, said he plans to continue the district's tradition of being represented "by moderate Republicans."

"I've always expected there will be a challenger, and I believe I will prevail. It's really a question of who is going to listen to the concerns of the community," Salazar said.

Watson said her main priority, if elected, is to make sure that Howard County has infrastructure in place before more growth and development occurs -- especially sites for schools.

"We need to talk about school sites," she said, noting that that topic was missing in the county's recent planning charrette for developing homes and businesses in Columbia's Town Center.

Angela Beltram, a former County Council member who led a petition drive this year to stop a comprehensive rezoning plan that the council approved, said she will support Watson.

"I've known her since she was a kid. She's not afraid to make tough decisions," said Beltram, who attended Wednesday's announcement.

Watson became a community activist a decade ago as a young parent with children at crowded Ilchester Elementary School. She attended meetings for years, pushing for more classrooms and growth controls before running for the nonpartisan school board in 2002. She served as chairman of the school board for the past two years before stepping down from that position yesterday.

In those roles, she worked closely with Merdon, and said she would continue to approach issues in a nonpartisan way.

"I haven't been a party person. I didn't come up through the party," Watson said, lamenting the current council's wrangling and lack of civility. "The public does not want to hear all of this infighting."

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