Ex-Ehrlich aide incites ire in Harford

Council president wants opponent to drop Steffen from his campaign

July 15, 2006|By JUSTIN FENTON | JUSTIN FENTON,SUN REPORTER

Harford County Council President Robert S. Wagner has challenged one of his Republican primary opponents to remove Joseph F. Steffen Jr. from his campaign staff because of Steffen's reputation as a dirty-tricks specialist, saying the county's citizens "deserve better."

In a letter delivered Thursday, Wagner, a 16-year veteran of the council, said he was "extremely disappointed" to see that candidate Aaron Kazi had allowed Steffen, "better known as the `Prince of Darkness' for his notorious smear campaigns," to work on his campaign.

"Governor Ehrlich was right to reject this brand of politics by firing Mr. Steffen," Wagner wrote. "It stands at odds with our values as Republicans - and it undermines every Republican's political campaign in Maryland to clean up government. It chips away at citizens' faith in our political process, and it certainly seems to contradict your campaign slogan: `A Principled Republican with an Independent Mind.'"

Wagner's letter was sent a day after The Sun reported that Steffen, whose testimony before a legislative committee has been much anticipated, returned to Maryland to work with Kazi after traveling and doing out-of-state consulting work. Ehrlich's former political opponents suspect that Steffen was the architect of dirty campaign tactics, and last spring Steffen acknowledged discussing rumors online about Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, Ehrlich's opponent in the gubernatorial race.

Kazi hit back Thursday, accusing Wagner of breaking the law by having a county secretary e-mail a campaign-related letter. He said Steffen, who said he is working as a volunteer, would remain on his campaign.

"He [Wagner] talks about how he'll never stoop to ugly tactics, but by sending this letter he's showing he can get down and dirty," Kazi said. "We're running a clean campaign, and we sincerely hope the incumbent joins us on the high road."

The Kazi-Steffen partnership sent a ripple through Harford this week, with many unsure how to react - other than to say that they expect fireworks over the next eight weeks.

But Kazi received an endorsement Thursday from Harford state Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Republican. Kazi had already been endorsed by Del. J.B. Jennings, a Baltimore and Harford County Republican and former Ehrlich aide.

"I think Joe got a raw deal. I'm glad he's back," Jacobs said.

In an interview Wednesday, Wagner was also critical of Ehrlich, saying Harford has seen few benefits from the Republican governor. An Ehrlich spokesman has said the governor would like to see a change in the council presidency and that Wagner will have to "answer for his votes," a reference to his vote against the appointment of David R. Craig to county executive last July.

"You tell me what [Ehrlich]'s brought here," Wagner said in a phone interview Wednesday. "We're forward-funding schools because we're not getting infrastructure from the state. We're paying from the taxpayers' pockets, and I don't see a lot of initiatives that have come here that we should really be elated about."

Officials in the county have been disappointed in recent years with how their legislators have fared in the Democratic-controlled General Assembly, particularly considering the dearth of school funding that has led the county to pay for new schools with local money and then wait for state reimbursement.

Republican officials were quick to defend Ehrlich. Del. Barry Glassman, a Republican who chairs the county's delegation, noted that shortfalls in school funding have been overstated.

"I hear it from candidates out on the campaign trail, but not from voters," Glassman said. "Even when [the state] was $1 billion in the hole, we got renovation money for North Harford High School. We have gotten projects we went down there for."

Kazi, 37, is running on a platform of improving working relations with Craig, tax breaks for businesses and maintaining green space. His firm, the Canton Group, provided Web services to Ehrlich's 2002 campaign and has since taken on other contract work for the state government. But Greg Massoni, a spokesman for Ehrlich, declined to confirm Kazi's claims that Ehrlich supports his candidacy "100 percent."

Billy Boniface is the third Republican seeking the council president's seat.

Kazi maintained that "real Republicans" don't believe Steffen did anything wrong. He called Steffen a "hero to the right," whose presence in his campaign has energized volunteers eager to work alongside a well-known operative.

Asked for reaction to Steffen's role in Kazi's campaign, Massoni offered praise. "We're proud to say we have a good group out there, and there's going to be some changes," the Ehrlich spokesman said. "People will have to answer for their votes."

Seeking a candidate who would fill the county's top post on an interim basis, Wagner voted last July to appoint Democrat Lucie L. Snodgrass to fill out the term of County Executive James M. Harkins. Ehrlich's choice of successor, Craig, won the appointment by a 5-1 vote, but some Republicans remain angry over Wagner's move.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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