With elections just around the bend, a traditional holiday event becomes a cavalcade of candidates

Patriotism and politics on parade

July 05, 2006|By MELISSA HARRIS AND BRENT JONES | MELISSA HARRIS AND BRENT JONES,SUN REPORTERS

Lou Vernet wears a plain white T-shirt every year to Towson's Fourth of July parade so that she can turn it into a billboard for her favorite politicians.

Yesterday, Vernet, 23, slapped a sticker for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. across her chest and another over her heart. Meanwhile, her mother, Silvia Williams, 49, sat nearby on a folding chair, waving a green-and-white sign for Mayor Martin O'Malley's gubernatorial campaign.

"I've supported Governor Ehrlich ever since I was in high school," Vernet said.

"Without my permission," her mother chimed in, and then laughed.

Politicians flock to Fourth of July parades regularly to wave, kiss babies and provide voters like Vernet with a casual reminder - over hot dogs and shaved ice - that they are working hard for them.

But this year, Ehrlich and O'Malley marched almost exclusively in events across Baltimore County - a sign that the area is destined to be a key battleground in this year's gubernatorial race.

Ehrlich grew up in Arbutus and represented part of the county in Congress. He trounced Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, his Democratic opponent in the 2002 governor's race, 62 percent to 38 percent in Baltimore County.

But O'Malley enjoys broad support in the Baltimore region, and his popularity in the city is destined to flow over city lines and potentially boost his party's take in Baltimore County.

If the mayor manages to split the county with Ehrlich, whose win there in 2002 nearly matched his statewide margin of victory, it could give the Democrats a good shot at recapturing the governor's mansion.

O'Malley hit four parades yesterday, all of them in Baltimore County. He was scheduled to attend the Annapolis parade, but it was canceled because of the weather. The governor participated in six events, four of which were in the county.

In Catonsville, under a sweltering sun, the candidates marched within minutes of each other. O'Malley and his wife, Katie Curran O'Malley, walked together as at least a dozen supporters trailed behind, handing out stickers and signs along Frederick Road.

Nicole Ames, a Catonsville attorney who attended the festivities yesterday with her husband and two of their three children, said she is supporting the mayor, who Ames said has done "a wonderful job" managing Baltimore.

She said Ehrlich won Baltimore County overwhelmingly in 2002 because Townsend was a weak candidate, and Ames said she expects a tighter contest this year. Still, given Ehrlich's childhood ties to the community, she believes he holds an advantage.

"This area, as liberal as it is, is very supportive of Ehrlich," Ames said.

But Brenda Pound, a Catonsville nurse who voted for Ehrlich in 2002, said she was "on the fence." The wife of a college educator, Pound said she is not pleased with Ehrlich's education funding cuts and his inability to get a slot-machine gambling bill passed.

With O'Malley and Ehrlich, she said she feels she is deciding "between the lesser of two evils."

"It's kind of the whole [2004 Bush-Kerry] presidential race all over again," Pound said.

Ehrlich and O'Malley were also in Towson yesterday, where they joined the Baltimore County Orphans' Court, the Edmondson Village Steppers and parade Grand Marshal Kimmie Meissner, an Olympic figure skater from Harford County and reigning world champion, among others.

Ehrlich, wearing an American flag print button-down shirt, and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, a candidate for U.S. Senate, walked behind Meissner. O'Malley, who marched in the middle of the parade, donned an airy, white button-down shirt and blue pants.

Ken Hutcherson, a World War II veteran from Lutherville, said he thought the holiday politicking was too much.

"It doesn't add anything to the parade," said Hutcherson, 82. When the Philippine Heritage Band marched by, wearing red uniforms and tall, furry black hats, he commented, "This is what makes a parade."

The gubernatorial candidates were not the only ones to work the parade circuit. Contenders for Maryland's soon-to-be open U.S. Senate seat - Steele, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin and former congressman and NAACP leader Kweisi Mfume - made the rounds as well.

"Hello everybody, happy Fourth," Mfume, a Democrat vying with Cardin for his party's nomination, said as he walked in the Catonsville parade. "Stay with me. I need you."

Cardin was scheduled to hit all four Baltimore County parades as well.

Earlier yesterday, the gubernatorial candidates faced off in Dundalk. Both said they were having a good time, despite the endless smiling and waving and the 95-degree heat.

"You get to see a ton of your fellow citizens all in one day," O'Malley said. "In election years, it marks the beginning of the campaign season."

Dark-blue Ehrlich campaign signs filled most blocks, however, and the governor, at times, appeared to receive more enthusiastic cheers.

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