Roads, growth key issues

In District 32 race, base restructuring, possibility of 20,000 jobs dominates the debate

Maryland Votes 2006

18 Days Until Nov. 7

October 20, 2006|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,SUN REPORTER

A former political operative for powerful Republican congressmen is seeking to unseat an influential Democratic incumbent in one of the most hotly contested districts in the state.

With military base restructuring slated to add 20,000 jobs to Fort Meade over five years, controlling a development boom in District 32 - which includes Glen Burnie, Hanover, Linthicum, Odenton and Severn - is the most important issue for both candidates.

Jon Vandenheuvel, a former aide to Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Michigan and former Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, said he will use the growth to create opportunity for African-Americans in the district and would be an agent of change in Annapolis.

"I'm very excited about what's happening in Central Maryland, with Fort Meade and the job growth," said Vandenheuvel, 37. "It could be a tremendous opportunity, but only if managed well. If it's managed poorly, it could only hurt the area."

Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., a two-term incumbent and former county councilman, said if re-elected, he would focus on transportation solutions to help manage the growth and keep his ear to the ground for constituents' concerns.

"I've always been very active in this community," he said, pointing out his participation in the Rotary Club, community associations, the Glen Burnie Carnival and anti-crime initiatives. "All those activities make up a tremendous difference."

DeGrange said that Vandenheuvel had not been active in the community before the campaign and that critical statements he's made about the General Assembly would make it difficult for him to work with fellow legislators on behalf of his district.

"I've been able to work across party lines and bring important funds to our community," he said, citing a bill he supported that allows communities near Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport that are affected by its noise to receive "enhancement grants" to improve infrastructure and beautify the area.

According to the most recent campaign finance reports on the Maryland Board of Elections Web site, Vandenheuvel is vastly outfunded by DeGrange, who had $200,000 as of Sept. 1, compared with the Republican's cash balance of $26,000.

Voters in Anne Arundel County supported Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in 2002 by nearly a 2 to 1 margin, giving Republicans hope that they can break Democrats' veto-proof majority by targeting Senate seats in the county, including District 32.

Vandenheuvel said DeGrange is too liberal for voters in the district, citing the senator's support for a failed bill that would have allowed undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition for college.

"His votes have not been aligned with where the majority of people in Central Maryland believe we need to be," he said.

Vandenheuvel, who has never held elective office, grew up all over the country, following his father, a pastor in the Christian Reform Church, to various Dutch-American enclaves in Michigan, California and Iowa. A Severn resident, he has degrees from Wheaton College and the Johns Hopkins University and started his career in politics in 1992 when he helped run Hoekstra's successful campaign to unseat a 13-term Republican incumbent in the primary.

After 10 years as a senior Republican staff member on Capitol Hill, he co-founded J.C. Watts Cos. in 2003, an umbrella business that includes the ownership of John Deere dealerships in Texas, an Oklahoma-based construction, engineering and project management business and a consulting company.

Because J.C. Watts Cos. is focused on the "emerging marketplace" of minority businesses and health issues, Vandenheuvel said, he would use that knowledge as a senator to make sure the growth in the county creates opportunities for African-Americans and reduces poverty in the county.

"I feel really strongly about fighting poverty," he said, noting the high poverty rate in the county. According to 2005 census figures, 13.3 percent of county residents live below the poverty line. The poverty "impacts education, jobs, health care, home ownership and public safety. We have to come up with a comprehensive strategy to reduce the level of poverty in the African-American community."

DeGrange, 57, worked in his family business - DeGrange Lumber Co. - for 30 years before it closed in 1996 after losing a competitive edge to big box retailers like Home Depot. The business operated in Glen Burnie, where DeGrange grew up and graduated from high school.

He said voters would be well served if they re-elect him, given his "proven ability" to step across party lines, such as when he supported Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s slots initiative and voted against a bill designed to force Wal-Mart to spend more on health care.

DeGrange said that as the Senate majority whip in the General Assembly and the chairman of a subcommittee that deals with public safety, transportation and environmental issues, he will be more likely to pass legislation and bring money to the district.

"When you're connected with the community and you work with the people, you stay in touch with them and do the job day in and day out, people respect you," he said. "I will continue to do and focus on things the same way I've always done."

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