3-way fight in GOP primary

County Council president faces challengers as he seeks an unprecedented fifth term

Maryland Votes 2006

September 03, 2006|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun reporter

With two weeks to go in perhaps the most bruising election of his political career, Robert S. Wagner boarded a school bus with a group of county officials Monday and rode along as it picked up dozens of Harford County students. Clean-shaven and wearing a dress shirt, he cracked jokes and greeted parents.

The image belied a tough campaign that has forced the County Council president to swat away criticism of his leadership and his commitment to the Republican Party.

In the end, political observers say, his opponents' campaigns might end up elevating a battered Wagner to an unprecedented fifth term.

In a countywide election, the biggest challenge would probably come from Billy Boniface, a horse breeder from Darlington who appears to be striking a chord with Harford residents through a message of teamwork that is heavy on modesty. He has raised more money than any other candidate, and his baby-blue signs dot the county's rural landscape.

"If we work together, we can solve your problems," Boniface has said at recent forums.

But with turnout typically low in primaries and typically including only polarized voters, a third candidate is hoping that a strategy of targeting Harford's most far-right voters will pay off.

Aaron Kazi, a partner in a Baltimore technology business, has been criticizing Wagner at every turn while trying to establish himself as a "conservative's conservative."

"This isn't about me getting elected. It's about, `Are you really conservative? What do you stand for? What are your real values?'" Kazi told The Sun in June. "It's not only critical for my race but the whole county."

Providing evidence that he is taking the challenges seriously, Wagner has held one fundraiser and has another scheduled for this week at MaGerk's Pub & Grill in Bel Air. The candidate said he had not held a fundraiser since 1990, when he won a District E seat as a 33-year-old farmer calling for better recycling programs.

Though Boniface and Kazi might be catching on with separate groups of voters, they might split the anti-Wagner vote and help him win another term.

Political observers say Wagner is vulnerable - as he was in 2002, when he won by fewer than 700 votes in the primary - and that those who want change have two choices.

Neither of the competitors has indicated that he will back down.

Wagner's fundraiser will follow a news conference Tuesday during which Wagner, County Executive David R. Craig and the county's three Republican mayors will appear with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to proclaim their support.

Those leadership positions had never before all been held by Republicans.

The event was organized by Craig but presents an opportunity for Wagner, who criticized Ehrlich in June by saying Harford was not receiving enough of a state windfall with the Republican governor in office.

Wagner, while maintaining that the county needs more money for school construction and other projects, has backed down from the comment, and his supporters have worked behind the scenes to mend fences with Ehrlich.

The comment might have provided more fodder for Kazi's campaign, which he maintains was begun under the auspices of a decree from Annapolis to defeat Wagner.

But Ehrlich has been unwilling to publicly support Kazi, and his campaign recently denounced a Kazi flier that alludes to Ehrlich's endorsement, calling it "an interesting, albeit misleading way to get attention."

Boniface has rebuffed opportunities - publicly and privately - to criticize his opponents. He was encouraged to enter the race by a longtime friend, Del. Barry Glassman, but he doesn't boast about endorsements.

Absent from the campaign has been talk of initiatives any of the three would implement as council president.

Instead, each has introduced himself and his ideology to voters. The only firm ideas presented have come from Democrat Charles White, an unopposed late entry in the race who received loud cheers at a forum in Edgewood after laying out his plan for a tax cut for the elderly.

Wagner said he sought to become council president only after serving three terms and becoming acquainted with the process. His most recent term was rife with obstacles, including the midterm appointment of a new county executive, the deployment of a council member to Iraq and zoning squabbles.

He said a victory by any of the newcomers would be troublesome for the seven-member council, which is assured of having at least three new members. The challenges brought on by growth at Aberdeen Proving Ground require experienced leadership, he says.

"It will take the smartest of people over a year to really get to understand the job and two budget cycles to be comfortable doing that," he said.

Though he and Craig have been portrayed as having an adversarial relationship, Wagner said the two would make a formidable team. He often notes that disputes mean the council is acting as a legislative check on the executive branch rather than as a rubber stamp.

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