Kazi rebukes Wagner over campaign manager

GOP infighting continues with return of ex-Ehrlich aide

shots taken at Democrats, too

July 23, 2006|By JUSTIN FENTON | JUSTIN FENTON,SUN REPORTER

County Council President candidate Aaron Kazi derided suggestions to drop his campaign manager, a former aide to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., and lashed out last week at incumbent Republican Robert S. Wagner and the Maryland Democratic Party in separate news releases issued just hours apart.

"While I understand you may not want Joseph Steffen as your campaign manager, Mr. Steffen is my campaign manager, and that is the end of the discussion. Clear enough?" Kazi wrote to Wagner. " ... Having said that, you are placing Mr. Steffen in pretty good company by naming him as yet another Republican you want nothing to do with."

Kazi, a Jarrettsville resident and technology firm owner who is making his first run at public office, went on to cite Wagner's vote against appointing County Executive David R. Craig, a move he said bucked the wishes of Ehrlich. Kazi also noted Wagner's criticism of Ehrlich for not doing enough for Harford in his first term. Wagner told The Sun that Harford taxpayers are financing too many projects that should receive state support.

"I guess you were too busy writing campaign-related letters on county time and having them emailed over county computers by the County Administrator to notice that BRAC was on its way to Harford," Kazi wrote [See letter, Page 4G].

This month, The Sun reported that Steffen returned to Maryland to work with Kazi after vanishing from public view as a legislative committee began investigating the hiring and firing practices of Ehrlich's administration.

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. But Steffen said Kazi will have "the cleanest-run campaign in the state of Maryland."

Following the report, Wagner challenged Kazi to remove Steffen from his campaign staff, saying the county's residents "deserve better."

"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.'"

News of Steffen's involvement in Kazi's campaign sent a ripple through Harford this month. The day after it was reported, Kazi announced a formal endorsement from Republican Sen. Nancy Jacobs, but the mere mention in a recent article of Craig's shaking hands with Steffen at a restaurant caused a flurry of upset phone calls to the executive's office, according to one county official.

In an interview, Wagner, running for an unprecedented fifth term on the council, said he has voted for what he believes is right, sometimes challenging the traditional party ideals. Four years ago, the county's Republican hierarchy sought to unseat him, running Norman Cochran, now a candidate for sheriff, against him in the primary. Wagner won by just 650 votes in the primary and coasted in the general election.

This year, Wagner is vying with Kazi and a third candidate, Darlington horse breeder Billy Boniface, in the primary. Traditional political wisdom holds that Kazi and Boniface would split the opposition vote against Wagner, and Kazi has pulled out the stops in the past several weeks to gain an edge. Boniface, meanwhile, is supported by longtime friend Del. Barry Glassman.

The winner would face Democrat Charles J. White Jr., a county employee nominated by the county central committee last week.

The same day Wagner sent his letter, the state Democratic Party issued a news release that said Ehrlich and his "ideological soul mate" Jacobs were behind an intra-party rift in Harford involving Kazi and Wagner.

"Dirty tricks and nasty politics have permeated Bob Ehrlich's entire political career," spokesman Terry Lierman said in the release. "The fact [that] Ehrlich brought Joe Steffen back to Maryland to work for one of his and Senator Jacobs' hand-picked candidates tells us what we can expect in Harford County and throughout Maryland."

Kazi said he was "disappointed, but not surprised to see the Democrats resort to attack politics, just as Rob Wagner did last week."

"Senator Jacobs has urged people to vote for me in the primary and the Governor's Communications Director looked me in the eye, shook my hand, and said `We're supporting you 100%,'" Kazi said in his release. "If the Maryland Democratic Party doesn't like the fact that we are working as a team in Harford County during the Republican Primary, that's their problem."

A spokesman for Ehrlich confirmed Kazi's claim, but added that the governor is not endorsing a candidate in the primary.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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