Political novices run hard

Benoit, Saab depend on grass-roots efforts to win District 4 council seat

Maryland Votes 2006

October 01, 2006|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,SUN REPORTER

Sid Saab won the Republican primary for County Council in District 4 by 87 votes - and after waiting 10 nail-biting days for all the ballots to be counted.

Jamie Benoit rolled past three other newcomers seeking the Democratic nomination, claiming nearly 70 percent of the vote Sept. 12.

The two political novices - one a county resident for two years and the other born and bred in West County - took different paths for the chance to succeed Democrat Bill D. Burlison, who is prohibited from seeking a third term.

The top issue facing the district - and Anne Arundel County - is the impending military job boom at Fort Meade and related growth. This race, though, could end up being dominated by fundraising, voter turnout and local ties, not the candidates' views.

"What I've noticed is that the races have been close, but the Democrats have been winning," said Dan Nataf, head of the Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College. "It's a question if that tendency can be overcome. [For Republicans] to prevail you need a compelling candidate. It may be too much to ask from someone new to town."

Saab, 35, and Benoit, 34, got into the race several months ago to get a head start on campaigning in a district that spans from Laurel Park and Tipton Airport to the Village of Waugh Chapel and the Crownsville Hospital Center.

Benoit can sell himself as the local kid made good, having grown up in Gambrills and attended county public schools before becoming an Army officer and now a corporate lawyer. He serves on the board of directors for the Piney Orchard community.

Benoit has vowed not to be outworked, and he points to the primary outcome as a reflection of his effort, dispatching his closest competitor by nearly 54 percentage points. He recently took a leave of absence to focus on this campaign.

"Door knocking is about the most important thing to do for a local politician," Benoit said, adding that the experience "will make me exponentially a better councilman."

He said he would help clear the way for the development of the long-awaited Odenton Town Center; establish a community center in Severn; and address the school maintenance backlog facing the county.

Benoit said he is open to considering an increase on county impact fees that are applied to developers for each home they build. While he supports the concept of a storm-water restoration fund to repair the county's damaged waterways, he considers a proposal to apply a flat fee on residents and businesses as "not thoughtful."

Benoit has also taken $500 from Ribera Development LLC, which needs the next County Council to approve a zoning change on a 1,600-home project in Laurel. Benoit noted that he and Ribera's president, John C. Stamato, grew up together. The candidate said he has rejected other developers' contributions "because I am principally against that."

Regarding how he would manage growth, particularly as 20,000 jobs head to Fort Meade in the next five years, Benoit said: "If I get elected, the hallmark, if you will, of my tenure on the council will be infrastructure first and development second. Schools, roads, sewer, water - it all starts with a plan. That's how I will approach every question regarding land use."

Saab moved to the United States after growing up in Lebanon, then settled in Anne Arundel County and started a small jewelry business in Prince George's County after becoming a U.S. citizen.

Saab said he has spent months learning about what he believes are the paramount issues facing this county: traffic, growth, taxes, the environment, economic development and crime. He opposes building a horse park in the county and supports building a veterans' hospital at the former Crownsville Hospital Center.

He is against raising taxes and fees, with the exception of an increase in impact fees.

Saab maintains that his grassroots effort of going door-to-door, attending forums and listening to voters - he has offered them his personal cell phone number - will pay dividends.

"It worked out before," Saab said, "and it will work for me now."

But his Republican opponent, David A. Tibbetts, got into the race late, raised just $326 (and spent $114), didn't put up signs and did little other noticeable campaigning. Still, the civic activist got more than 48 percent of the vote.

Saab noted that Tibbetts had solid name recognition from running for office twice in Anne Arundel County, for Orphans Court in 1998 and state delegate in 2002.

"Dave ran a very great campaign," Saab said. "He didn't spend money on signs and he did have a little more name recognition. I don't see that as me being vulnerable."

Saab took $200 from entities of the Baldwin family, which owns Reliable Contracting Co. Inc., one of the county's largest developers. Executives of Reliable have looked into relocating their Millersville headquarters to Gambrills, off Waugh Chapel Road, according to The Capital. Benoit raised questions about Saab's closeness with the Baldwin family.

In response, Saab said: "The citizens' best interest is my best interest."

Regarding his perspective on development, he said: "Growth can only happen if we only have the adequate facilities for them."

Saab will have at least two hurdles to overcome to win on Nov. 7: a shortage of cash and a shortage of registered Republicans. As of Sept. 27, there are 18,356 Democrats, 14,401 Republicans and 8,107 independents.

Benoit raised about $54,500 in the past 17 months - an amount that outpaces two Republican County Council members seeking re-election (Edward R. Reilly and C. Edward Middlebrooks).

Saab has raised just over $16,000 from January 2005 through August of this year, with $4,000 coming in the form of personal loans.

phill.mcgowan@baltsun.com

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