Craig counts on GOP vote

Appointed to office, executive runs own race

Maryland Votes 2006

July 09, 2006|By JUSTIN FENTON AND MARY GAIL HARE | JUSTIN FENTON AND MARY GAIL HARE,SUN REPORTERS

County Executive David R. Craig heads into the official start of campaign season with a mandate from the county's Republican hierarchy but with a new opponent and questions to answer about his leadership.

Over the next few months, Craig will have to withstand months of sharp critiques from a Democratic rival from a region of the county where Craig was trounced in an unsuccessful 1998 bid for the same office.

His campaign goals will include broadening his geographic appeal while energizing a Republican base that considers his victory in the fall a foregone conclusion.

Political experts, elected officials and campaign workers say the election is Craig's to lose. He is the GOP choice in a county that has almost exclusively elected Republicans in recent years, a longtime fixture in county politics who was knighted as the successor to former County Executive James M. Harkins a year ago this month.

With that endorsement, Craig has governed authoritatively but with mixed results. He grappled with the County Council over comprehensive rezoning and the creation of an administrative farming liaison, and unveiled a spending plan that would provide $200 million from a yet-to-be-determined source for school construction.

At the end of June, Craig christened a Bel Air storefront as his campaign headquarters. He chose the central location, near his county office and in the heart of Harford, over Havre de Grace, an area he represented as a state and municipal elected representative for 17 years.

Photos of the candidate lined the walls, marking milestones of his one-year tenure as county executive. Volunteers made sure everyone wore a "Support Craig" sticker and worked the crowd to drum up more volunteers - poll workers, sign wavers and door-to-door campaigners.

"I've got everyone stickered," said Aaron N. Tomarchio, Craig's chief of staff.

In remarks to a crowd of more than 100, Craig quoted Theodore Roosevelt and Scripture, and promised to take his campaign to the people. He not only is campaigning for the term up for grabs this fall, he said, but for eight more years to carry out his plans.

"I won't wait for people to come to me. I will go to them," he said.

A key test of Craig's arrival will be whether he can win over the county's northern swath, which stretches from Jarrettsville to Darlington. Craig won just two of the district's 23 precincts in 1998, and was beaten there by a nearly 2-to-1 ratio.

Harkins, who promoted a growth strategy based on farmland easements, launched an aggressive TV and radio advertising campaign that year that accused Craig of raising taxes and undercutting services for seniors during his term as mayor of Havre de Grace. He defeated Craig by more than 2,000 votes and went on to defeat Democrat Arthur Henry Helton Jr.

"I've spoken to Craig about the north end and have talked to him about who he needs to speak to up there," said Councilman Lance C. Miller, a Republican from Darlington who is not seeking re-election. "There's no strong candidate in the north, so it's his prerogative to get around and talk to people."

Since being appointed, Craig has picked up many of the initiatives he promoted during that 1998 run - he introduced a moratorium on fundraising during comprehensive rezoning, intended to quell complaints that politicians give developers preferential treatment based on donations, and said he intends to improve the county's planning department to prevent sprawl.

"I think he's grown, and I think over the next four years, eight years, he will grow even further," said William H. Cox, a developer and former Democratic politician. "He's getting a handle on what's happening, especially with BRAC and major issues."

Though eight years have passed, the issues remain largely the same - school crowding, juvenile crime, traffic and loss of open space. Now Craig has another chance at Helton - not Art Helton, but his wife and business partner, Ann, who is the only Democrat running for the spot.

Their campaign is likely to be bitter. Helton, a land preservation advocate and child-support specialist, has said the county's current elected officials are "leading us toward endless strip malls and big retail centers surrounded by development after development," and recently accused Craig of being influenced by "monied interests that have been selecting and electing the candidates here."

Craig almost passively dismisses his challenger, calling her a front for her husband.

"I am not personally rich, so I won't be buying this election," he told supporters. "I don't have a wealthy developer spouse to pay for my campaign."

The two seemed poised for a four-month showdown through the general election until a wild card entered the Republican primary late last month - Mark Fisher, an airplane engineer and farmer from Bel Air.

"He was appointed, so I feel this election is up for grabs. It should be competitive," said Fisher, 49. "At this point in time for the county, I bring an engineering approach and take the politics out of the job."

Craig said he doesn't mind a little competition. But his supporters want to make sure the script plays out as written.

"Roosevelt said [that] the first business of every American should be politics. Those are more than words. They are a call to action," Craig told supporters recently.

Then he added from Corinthians: "We will counter empty talk with actions."

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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