As the Democratic and GOP nominees define themselves for voters, an independent's impact is unknown factor

Image is key in executive race

Maryland Votes 2006

September 15, 2006|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,sun reporter

In Howard County's hotly contested campaign for county executive, image may be everything.

That is why one candidate wants to be seen as the champion for residents resentful of congestion, while another portrays himself as a battler for maintaining the county's top-flight public services.

The flip side is their efforts to define each other in negative ways with images such as the developers' best friend or the one who cuts budgets for schools, libraries, parks and public safety.

"Growth and development are the No. 1 issue," said County Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, the Republican nominee for executive who is trying to capitalize on his vote against the unpopular Comp Lite rezoning bill.

"We're going to have a consistent message on growth and development throughout the campaign," Merdon said, noting that thousands of county voters signed petitions to put the comprehensive zoning bill on the ballot, though a state Court of Appeals decision later blocked that.

"People are dissatisfied with [Ken] Ulman," Merdon said, because he, like every County Council member except Merdon, voted for the bill.

Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat also seeking the county executive's job, has advertised that he stood up to developers by opposing plans for big-box stores in central Columbia and by helping to save Merriweather Post Pavilion.

"I'm very proud of standing up to the developers on poorly planned growth," Ulman said. "We've got a wonderful quality of life in this county, and it's the Democratic leadership that's supported that quality of life.

"I'm running against an opponent who has tried to erode the quality of life we enjoy" by opposing an income tax increase in the fiscal 2004 budget that has provided more than $130 million since then for services.

As for Merdon championing homeowners against development, "People are complaining about the infill [development] in his district that he's allowed," Ulman said, promising a "very spirited discussion" over the next seven weeks.

"Is Merdon less the developer's friend?" said Democratic Party Chairman Tony McGuffin. "I know he wants to paint pictures."

Merdon shot back.

"I know the citizens of District 1 support me," he said. "I also know 7,000 people signed a petition against Ken Ulman's vote [on Comp Lite]."

Those conflicting attempts to define each other for voters will be the crux of the general election campaign that began as results of Tuesday's primary still were being tallied.

But as Democrats and Republicans maneuver, there is an unusual wild card in play, too - independent candidate C. Stephen Wallis, who says he is applying for a job, not competing with the two county councilmen.

"I don't have any illusions. I never said it's anything less than daunting," the lightly financed Wallis said, adding that the need for big wads of campaign cash for mailings and advertising is a "poor commentary on politics."

Still, Wallis said he is working 11-hour days as principal of Harper's Choice Middle school, leaving campaigning for evenings and weekends, and will have enough money to do just one direct mailing.

Whether his campaign will attract enough votes to influence the election, much less elect him county executive, is an open question.

Meanwhile, Harry M. Dunbar, the Democrat who ran a low-budget, anti-development effort against Ulman, received slightly more than 5,000 votes - about 21 percent of the vote in a very low 23.7 percent overall primary election turnout.

That's being interpreted in different ways, too.

"Voters had a choice between a slow-growth and pro-growth candidate, and a significant number chose slow growth," Merdon said, interpreting Dunbar's results.

"His opponent [Dunbar] did so well against him" that Dunbar's vote shows Ulman is vulnerable, said Brian Harlin, county GOP chairman. Merdon said he will be working to attract those 5,000 votes.

But Ulman and other Democrats dismissed Dunbar's vote number as insignificant.

McGuffin said Dunbar was a one-issue candidate, and even people who voted for him may have other, broader concerns that might lead them to vote for Ulman.

On the other hand, McGuffin sees Wallis as someone who might attract conservative Republican votes.

"Look at his background," McGuffin said, referring to Wallis' former Republican Party registration.

"I think the Republicans will be voting for him and Merdon," though he conceded that "as an independent he [Wallis] could take votes from Ken."

Wallis said he is completely independent.

"I think my appeal will be with folks of all [political] stripes - independents, disaffected Democrats and Republicans," he said.

Ulman took another tack, comparing his results with those of popular incumbents such U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a 2nd District Democrat, and Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., also a Democrat.

"Dutch Ruppersberger got 82 percent against somebody that no one had ever heard of" who still collected 18 percent of the vote, Ulman said, adding that three unknowns who ran against Smith got 23 percent of that lopsided Democratic primary vote.

Dunbar declared victory for his slow-growth campaign, saying that with the huge obstacles he faced, getting more than 5,000 votes is an achievement.

Ulman said he is ready to ratchet up the campaign's tempo, starting with a lunchtime candidates forum before county Realtors today..

"People will see many more specifics very soon," Ulman said. "We're going to be very active - especially communicating our message."

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