Harford's strange bedfellows

Democrat Helton supported by new GOP group in executive race

Maryland Votes 2006

July 27, 2006|By JUSTIN FENTON | JUSTIN FENTON,SUN REPORTER

A new Web site supporting a Democratic candidate for Harford County executive solicits support from an unusual constituent group: Republicans.

With photos of Ann C. Helton next to those of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, the site, launched last month by a group called Republicans for Ann Helton, declares "Ann's Plan for Harford County embodies the core beliefs of real Republicans."

The group's leaders say they represent the average Harford voter - a moderate Republican who believes in fiscal conservatism and land conservation. Displeased with the way GOP-dominated leadership has steered the county in recent years, they say they are bucking their party for Helton, a former Anne Arundel County councilwoman.

"In one simple statement, I'm a moderate Republican," said Glenn R. Dudderar, a wildlife expert who is the group's treasurer. "Ann is determined that we will grow economically but do it in a way that protects natural resources of Harford County, and that's me."

Strategically, the effort resembles that of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., whose first TV advertisement of the Maryland gubernatorial campaign depicted him as a politician who governs "from the center, where most of us are."

Political experts said the ad, which invokes Ehrlich's support of stem cell research and efforts to save the Chesapeake Bay, aims to pick up conservative Democrats in a state where Republicans are outnumbered 2-to-1.

In a more extreme example, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, a candidate for U.S. Senate, told The Washington Post anonymously this week that being a Republican was like wearing a "scarlet letter" and criticized President Bush.

In Harford, Helton is trying to pull back a voting bloc that has shifted toward the right in recent years but still remains largely in the middle. Voter registration is split, and results from the 2002 election show that the difference in many local races was Democrats and Independents who voted Republican.

"If she's moving to the right, the [Democratic] voters are less likely to move with Republicans," said Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political scientist. "Since there's nobody to her left, she doesn't have to worry about that side of the spectrum. She needs to mobilize them, but if her Republican opponent is more objectionable to those people than she is, they'll turn out."

Republicans, however, scoffed at the notion that Helton represented "core party beliefs."

"Ann's very personable. She's a charming person, but I think this is rather shameless," said William G. Christoforo, chairman of the county's Republican Central Committee. "Democrats are voting in droves for Republicans in Harford County, and I would think perhaps she should be more interested in her own base than our base."

Helton, who appeared on former Baltimore County Executive Ted Venetoulis' 1978 ticket for governor, said she has "always been a Democrat and will continue to be a Democrat." But she said she is a moderate in many ways. Much of her platform involves promoting issues that are nonpartisan, such as land use, she said.

A review of Helton's campaign literature shows she has been trying to appeal to the county's no-growth sentiment but also to traditional Republican values. She appears in choir robes in one section of her Web page and lists her favorite hymns.

In an effort to distance herself from the far left, she declares in another section of the site that "conservation isn't about hugging trees. It's about smart growth and inclusive, practical, and forward-thinking government."

Some Republicans suggest that such talk is code for "no-growth," but Helton and her husband, former state Sen. Arthur Henry Helton Jr., are developers who have purchased rundown buildings in the Aberdeen area and revamped them.

The group's leaders - who at the time of the interview were also its only formal members - said they prefer Helton but are not particularly dissatisfied with County Executive David R. Craig, a Republican who was appointed last July. The site, however, features sharp attacks on Craig, accusing him of overspending and nepotism. It is registered to Richard Norling, a Democrat who was an adviser to two former county executives.

Helton said members of her campaign helped establish the group after finding several voters who shared the view.

"This was about helping them get their message out, and how we get that message out to other Republicans," Helton said.

Not a political activist by nature, Dudderar, 62, said he has witnessed a toll on the environment caused by poorly planned development. He moved to Harford County after retiring from Michigan State University.

Both he and Helton were members of the Harford Land Trust, and he believes her consideration of the environment in growth issues sets her apart from Craig.

"So far, David Craig, with some exceptions, is heading in the right direction. I think he's a good man," Dudderar said. "In this case, Ann would do a better job."

The group's president, Whiteford resident Mary Miller, said she was an independent until the 2000 election, when she registered as a Republican so she could cast a vote for Sen. John McCain in the presidential primary. She said she voted for County Executive James M. Harkins and has been "horrified" with the county's approach to growth since then.

Like Dudderar, Miller said she is not particularly dissatisfied with Craig, who she said was responsive to concerns over the past comprehensive rezoning bill, but thinks Helton has a better plan.

"You have to look at the person and not the party," said Miller, 45. "And you have to look around you and see what's happening to the farmland. If we don't change something, it's going to disappear."

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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