Standing at dawn beside a busy road in Ellicott City on a recent chilly morning, Tony Salazar wore a fixed smile above his pressed shirt, tie and blue blazer. He waved his hands vigorously at passing commuters from behind a large white-and-red campaign sign, drawing an occasional horn toot or a wave.
"In a way, this one for me is a lot more pleasant because I know a lot more people," he said, comparing his current quest for the District 1 seat on the Howard County Council to his unsuccessful 2004 campaign for Maryland's 7th District congressional seat.
But while he is a Republican running in an Ellicott City-Elkridge district that has elected Republican council members for the past 16 years, the 47-year-old lawyer and deputy general counsel for Provident Bank is no shoo-in.
The reason: opponent Courtney Watson, the 43-year-old, self-described moderate-to-conservative Democrat, insurance firm vice president and four-year county school board member who has made a point of her lack of partisan motives.
"Party doesn't come up much going door to door," said Watson, who has been attending county government meetings and working on public policy issues for a decade. "The majority of people out there are concerned about what the person has done - `Can we count on them?'"
Both parties consider the district winnable.
The last time the District 1 seat had no incumbent running, in 1998, Councilman Christopher J. Merdon won with 58 percent of the vote. He was re-elected in 2002 with 66 percent - in a district in which registered Democrats slightly outnumber Republicans.
Republicans are confident about their chances this year as well. "It's our feeling that's our district," said county Republican Party Chairman Brian Harlin.
Democratic Party Chairman Michael McPherson said his party wants the seat back.
"I think this year the [Democratic] party looks at that as a very significant and necessary win," because whichever party has a majority of County Council votes controls the government's policy making agenda, he said. "Even though the executive proposes, the County Council enacts."
Salazar, who has worked as an attorney for 20 years, has been active in Baltimore's Hispanic community and served on the Jim Rouse Entrepreneurial Fund. He is the father of three, a soccer coach, a Cub Scout leader and a resident of Howard's Centennial neighborhood.
Though the council district he seeks to represent seems a hotbed of anti-development fervor this year, Salazar said resentment over property taxes is an even bigger issue among people he has spoken to.
Watson's entree to public life was through the schools.
The daughter of former County Executive Edward Cochran and a mother of three, Watson became a community organizer over the issue of classroom crowding. Merdon appointed her to a citizens committee that tightened county laws regulating development around crowded schools, and she was elected to the school board four years ago.
Watson, who is on the Maryland Restaurant Association Board of Directors, considered running for county executive this year but decided on the council.
"I'm interested in making sure we keep what is special about this community as opposed to letting it turn into an urban environment," she said.
Development was an issue at a recent candidates forum before county Realtors.
Salazar said he would be a "strong voice" on development. "I know what it's like to live in a community facing development pressures," he said. Asked for his ideas, he mentioned reducing taxes for homeowners and advocating for a new liaison official to boost ties with community groups.
Watson said she would want the county to "take a real hard look at in-fill development," requiring more compatibility with existing homes along with tighter regulations on drainage and forest conservation. She also wants the current zoning counsel strengthened and tighter traffic standards under the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, which delays development if schools or roads are overwhelmed.
Both candidates mentioned the issue of in-fill development - the development of large new homes on small plots of vacant land in older neighborhoods. Watson called it the top issue she has heard about while knocking on thousands of doors.
Salazar agreed on the importance of the in-fill issue, saying, "I want to see predictable and planned development."
In her campaign, Watson draws on her school board experience, arguing that, with a virtually new County Council, her time on the board will provide the panel with needed expertise.
But Salazar and Harlin said Watson's school board service could hurt her, too.
"Courtney Watson has a lot of baggage and a lot of negatives," Harlin said, calling her "an opportunist" politically.
A grade-changing scandal at Centennial High in 2004, while Watson was board chairman, "was terribly managed," Salazar said.