GOP candidates make last push to lead council

Maryland Votes 2006

September 10, 2006|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun reporter

With their heated race nearing its finale, the Republican candidates for County Council president stepped up the rhetoric last week, with one candidate lobbing his first broadside, another continuing his fierce attacks and the incumbent taking to the airwaves.

Making the rounds in Harford e-mail inboxes was an endorsement of incumbent Robert S. Wagner by a local homebuilders group, which criticizes challenger Billy Boniface for being "overly protective" of the county's northern area and suggests Wagner could help push through bills favored by developers.

In the e-mail, obtained by The Sun, the Home Builders of Maryland Harford County chapter Chairman Don Stephen cited electability and experience as two reasons for choosing Wagner for the Republican primary nomination. He also said Boniface, a 42-year-old horse breeder from Darlington, might thwart key issues that the homebuilders support.

The third candidate, Jarrettsville resident Aaron Kazi, was not interviewed by the group.

"In close questioning, it is obvious that Boniface is overly protective of the North and funds earmarked for `open space' acquisition, despite the county's need to fund several more large school construction projects in preparation for [military base realignment]," the e-mail said.

The memo is revealing in that it essentially lays out a blueprint for what the industry would like to see occur over the next several years - a more liberal approach to residential and commercial development, the rebuffing of attempts by local volunteer fire departments to include sprinklers in the county's building codes, leaner storm water management standards, and a revamping of the county's transfer tax to so that less money goes to farmland preservation and more to school construction.

It describes Wagner and an experienced council as a "second bite at the apple" if the county executive stifles development legislation.

Stephen noted that Wagner, who has been on the council since 1990, previously has not been endorsed by the group's political action committee and clashed with them on several key issues in the past. But he scored an endorsement this year because he has continued to work with the industry nonetheless, Stephen wrote.

Wagner said he has not changed any of his stances that caused friction with the group in the past. Rather, he said, they value his experience over the challengers.

"I'm not gonna change in the middle of the stream now. That's not gonna happen," Wagner, 49, said in an interview. "I've always given everybody the policy of fairness. They've never supported me in the past, but as business leaders, they see that they need someone with knowledge and history."

According to campaign finance records, the Harford County Home Builders PAC has contributed about $4,000 to County Executive David R. Craig's campaign since 2003, as well as $500 to Councilwoman Veronica "Roni" L. Chenowith, both Republicans. The president of the PAC, Frank Hertsch, has made individual contributions to Craig and Chenowith, as well.

Meanwhile, Boniface and Kazi sent out thousands of direct-mail postcards criticizing Wagner.

Kazi's flier was the third in a series of mailings that feature Wagner's photo with the words "Re-elect Rob Wagner? Are you kidding?" The latest hit Republican mailboxes last week, a glossy postcard that shows Wagner superimposed over a campaign sign for Martin O'Malley.

"Just recently, Wagner insisted our Republican Governor hadn't done much of anything for Harford County," it read. "Wagner's `O'Malley colors' are showing."

Kazi, 37, has questioned Wagner's commitment to the party because he voted last year for a Democrat to replace Republican County Executive James M. Harkins. Wagner's choice - Lucie L. Snodgrass, who now advises O'Malley's gubernatorial campaign - had worked as an adviser to Harkins as well as his predecessor, Democrat Eileen Rehrmann, for several years. Some feel that Wagner snubbed Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. by not voting for Craig, however.

Though Boniface's mailing does not mention Wagner by name, it represents the first time Boniface has directly critiqued Wagner since his campaign began. The flier juxtaposes Boniface's family farm in Darlington with a photo of homes built on what used to be part of Wagner's family farm, which was sold to developers.

"I didn't think it was proper to say his name, but people in the ag community needed to understand what I've done with my farm and what he did with his," Boniface said. "I utilized land preservation to grow my business and prospered."

Lance C. Miller, an outgoing council member from Darlington who supports Wagner, fumed over the mailing.

"It goes to show they have absolutely no foundation and no message, and that's why he's not going to win," Miller said. "He's a great guy from a great family, but there's no reason he should be County Council president."

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