The two County Council members hoping to be Howard County's next executive are off to flying starts financially in what is likely to be the most expensive campaign year yet, according to state campaign finance reports.
"This campaign may be more expensive because it's an open seat," said council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican who reported having $222,730 on hand at the end of the reporting period, Jan. 11, including 60 gifts of $1,000 or more.
"I feel like we have a good cross section of contributors, both large and small," Merdon said, adding that sometimes a $25 check from someone willing to display a lawn sign or bumper sticker is worth more than a $500 check.
West Columbia Democrat Ken Ulman reported having $196,124 on hand, thanks in part to 70 contributions of $1,000 or more, most of which came since he declared for the top job in November. He said he had to move fast.
"I did feel the need because my opponent has been running for higher office for three years," Ulman said. "I felt the need to catch up."
The reports record activity over the past year.
Four years ago, County Executive James N. Robey used $209,000 to earn a second term, but some observers think the totals could approach $500,000 per candidate this year.
"I think if you just look at the pattern we've seen with this report they probably are on target to raise that kind of money," said Councilman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat.
Harry Dunbar, an independent Democrat also running for executive, said he has not raised enough money to require a report. He refused yesterday to say if he has raised any funds.
"The Dunbar campaign is chasing votes, not dollars," he said, though he is advertising a fundraiser, to be held Jan. 29.
Donald F. Norris, professor of public policy at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said two factors are driving up campaign costs in Howard, where candidates normally rely on mailings and local advertising, not big-budget media campaigns.
"The county is getting more and more competitive politically," he said.
In addition, Norris said, "you've got two young, not terribly well-known" council members who are going to have to spend more money to put their names and platforms before the voters.
"The cost of doing business is going up," said Robey, a Democrat who is running for state Senate in District 13. Though he reported having only $6,169 on hand, Robey said he figures to raise and spend about $300,000 on his campaign.
Incumbent District 13 state Sen. Sandra B. Schrader, a Republican, reported having $150,000 on hand, and she said her target is to raise another $100,000.
But Schrader said money is not the most vital ingredient in the county.
"Money is certainly important, but the blood, sweat and tears is equally important. You can't put a price on that," she said.
The three House of Delegates seats represent another battleground in District 13, covering the southeastern county.
There, four Democrats are seeking nominations to three delegate seats. Guzzone is running on a ticket with incumbent Dels. Shane E. Pendergrass and Frank S. Turner, leaving Del. Neil F. Quinter to fend for himself.
Guzzone reported having $154,109, on hand, compared with $54,941 for Quinter, who also has $20,000 in debt, most of which is a loan from his personal funds.
"My expectation is that given the position that Neil is in, with Shane and Frank and I together, he'll spend everything he's got in the primary," Guzzone said.
Quinter discounted that theory, adding that he does not see the contest as one between Guzzone and himself.
"I think it's four people for three seats, and anything can happen," he said. "I feel good about where I am," Quinter said.
Merdon and Ulman got several large gifts at the maximum $4,000 level, and Merdon reported returning some money to three donors who exceeded the legal limit.
Ulman, for example, got $4,000 each from Richard and Linda Heinecke, who are involved in the management firm that runs Merriweather Post Pavilion, he said, and $3,000 from Hamilton Reed LLC of Ellicott City, a builder.
Merdon also got several large contributions, including $6,500 from local businessman J.P. Bolduc and his wife, plus $6,250 from two of Bolducs' family businesses. Another $6,500 came from a combination of personal and corporate gifts from the Lundy family. Builder Harry J. Lundy has been involved in several county campaigns. Merdon got $1,000 from Nick Mangione, whose family owns Turf Valley where development plans have stirred controversy.
Both candidates got money from development interests, and they said that is not a problem.
"Anyone who supports me supports my agenda and my vision for Howard County, Ulman said. He voted against and supported various developments, he said.
Merdon also said his judgment is not influenced by contributions.
"What I would like people to do is look at my voting record as an indicator of how I handle growth issues. I voted against a number of very large development projects," he said.
Campaign finance reports are on the state elections board Web site, www.elections.state.md.us