Record number vie for county offices

July 09, 2006|By JUSTIN FENTON | JUSTIN FENTON,SUN REPORTER

A record number of candidates are vying for elected positions in Harford this year, including the first third-party candidate, and political experts said the number of Republican challengers signals the official arrival of the party.

At a recent candidate forum in Dublin, Republican Jason C. Gallion remarked that there were enough hopefuls in the race for District D that they might be able to field a nine-member baseball team and challenge the candidates for sheriff.

Gallion was joking, but as the filing deadline came to a close, the scenario nearly became a possibility - there are seven candidates vying for District D and eight to lead the county's deputies.

Overall, more than 50 are expected to compete for the elected positions of county executive, County Council members, sheriff, state's attorney, clerk of courts and register of wills. Since Harford switched to a charter form of government - creating the position of county executive and the seven-member council - no more than 40 candidates have run for office, according to an analysis of election records dating back to 1972.

This year's hopefuls include 34 Republicans, several of whom are contesting incumbents.

Longtime council members Robert S. Wagner and Veronica "Roni" L. Chenowith each face two challengers from within the party. And in District E, Councilman Richard C. Slutzky will be challenged by Glenn B. Spatz, a real estate broker, and Melvin J. Wehrmann Jr., a Baltimore fire lieutenant and volunteer at the Joppa-Magnolia Fire Company.

"I figure that with my experience, I can give some input on public safety improvements," said Wehrmann, 40, who lives in Fountain Green.

Donald F. Norris, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said the high number likely doesn't reflect dissatisfaction with the current leaders but rather a groundswell of hopefuls looking to rise to power within the party.

"When one party is dominant and the other party, therefore, doesn't matter, whoever gets the nomination is going to run the party apparatus," Norris said. "A number of people are looking at the perks, and they choose to run, with or without party endorsement. If they win, they become the standard bearer for the party."

During the reign of the Democrats in Harford, the distribution of candidates in election years was similarly lopsided. In the 1986 and 1982 elections, 29 Democrats competed for elected office against just seven Republicans. The tide appeared to turn in 1998, when each party had 20 candidates.

"The Republican Party is becoming more competitive," said County Executive David R. Craig.

While officials are largely refraining from endorsing candidates in the primary, the Sept. 12 ballot will largely decide who becomes the county's elected officials for the next four years. But just one-third of the county's registered voters participate in the primary, and many Democrats who have been voting Republican cannot weigh in.

Curiously, even though Republicans hold nearly every elected position, the county's voters are still split - 58,479 registered Democrats to 57,565 Republicans, as of last week. Those right-leaning Democrats will soon begin to shift so they can participate in the primaries, said Matthew J. Crenson, a Johns Hopkins political science professor.

"Just as candidates continue to shift, you'll see a continuing shift in registration," Crenson said. "That's where the action is, and they want to be there."

Crenson and Norris also said growth could be expanding the pool of candidates, with that same growth forming the basis for many of the candidates' platforms.

Among the new faces is Brian Bittner, who teaches speech and debate at Towson University and Harford Community College. He has filed to run for District B, representing Fallston and Abingdon, as the county's first Green Party candidate.

"I am running because I want to put community first. Sprawl is out of control, schools are being neglected, and Wal-Mart is slighting small business. ... I promise to put the needs of the community before those of the moneyed special interests."

But the analysis of the election records shows that population growth hasn't necessarily resulted in more candidates. The county has grown from 115,000 residents in 1970 to about 240,000 in 2005, but the number of candidates has generally fallen between 34 and 40.

Justin.fenton@baltsun.com

Crowded ballot

This election year, Harford County will have a record number of candidates vying for county executive, County Council, sheriff, state's attorney, clerk of courts, and register of wills - the most since the county was chartered in 1972. The total number of candidates per year:

2006: 50 *

2002: 34

1998: 40

1994: 39

1990: 29

1986: 36

1982: 36

1978: 40

1974: 38

* The Democratic Central Committee has until July 18 to appoint challengers in races where no Democrats have filed.

[Source: Harford County Board of Elections records]

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