Growth key issue in race

Unaffiliated voters could tip the outcome in a very tight contest

County Executive

October 29, 2006|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun reporter

At first glance, Howard County Councilmen Ken Ulman, 32, a Democrat from River Hill, and Christopher J. Merdon, 35, a Republican from western Ellicott City, share similarities as part of a new generation of county leaders.

Both are young professionals and family men, each with two young children. Ulman, a Columbia native and one-term councilman, is a lawyer specializing in elder law. Merdon, a two-term councilman, is a vice president for business development for Associated Computer Services, a Dallas-based global computer services firm.

But look further and clear differences quickly emerge between those two candidates for Howard County executive.

Ulman's campaign is based on his claim that the stewardship of Democrats - including their willingness to raise taxes when needed - has kept Howard County at the forefront in national magazine ratings.

"I'm proud of my record and my time on the County Council where I had to make tough decisions to invest and support the quality of life that we've come to enjoy," Ulman told about 300 business people at a recent Chamber of Commerce forum in Clarksville.

Merdon has stressed his stance on slowing growth and postponing redevelopment of central Columbia - the county's two biggest issues this year.

Merdon alone voted against a contested comprehensive rezoning bill that sparked a grass-roots protest drive, and he has proposed a growth-control plan that includes impact fees on new homes and safeguards to ensure that new homes built in older neighborhoods are compatible with their communities. "I want voters to vote for me because I will slow the pace of growth in Howard County," he said.

Both candidates are keenly aware that in Howard, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by just over 21,000 voters.

Merdon's slow-growth theme has attracted prominent Democrats such as former County Councilwoman Angela Beltram, Preservation Howard County President Mary Catherine Cochran and Harry M. Dunbar, the unsuccessful Democratic primary candidate. All have endorsed Merdon.

But Howard County also has about 33,000 registered unaffiliated voters, and C. Stephen Wallis, the independent candidate, is the wild card in the mix.

Wallis, 56, of Ellicott City, is a tall, stern-looking career educator who says he is fed up with partisan bickering between Democrats and Republicans and thinks citizens are, too.

A Republican who has worked as an educational consultant on several Maryland GOP campaigns, Wallis has less than $25,000 in campaign funding. He is hoping to convert that into the political asset of owing nothing to the developers, lawyers, builders and landowners who have helped pack the major party candidates' treasuries with up to $600,000 each.

In the latest campaign finance reports filed Friday, covering the period from Aug. 28 to Oct. 22, Ulman reported raising $94,408, and he had $118,354 left. Merdon reported raising $59,583 and had $140,903 left.

"There's great, great potential to really win this," Wallis said. "People are looking for more choices. I hope I've elevated the discussion."

Few observers are as optimistic about Wallis' chances, but the votes Wallis gets could be crucial.

"This race is going to be so close that any percentage one way or the other will affect the race. I believe we won't know the result election night," said Merdon.

Merdon has been the most aggressive campaigner, frequently criticizing Ulman as less qualified. He held a string of campaign news conferences to launch initiatives he would pursue if elected.

These include a proposal for a 25 percent property tax cut for seniors 70 and older; a growth-control plan that would delay the redevelopment of downtown Columbia for a year; large impact fees on developers who get zoning changes to build more homes; a 311 nonemergency phone number for residents; and a middle school sports initiative.

In addition, Merdon proposed an environmental plan that would attempt to convert methane gas from county dumps to salable energy, plant 50,000 trees with reforestation money, use agricultural preservation money to buy small parcels of land for neighborhood parks and experiment with alternative fuels in county vehicles.

His education plan would give free laptop computers to every incoming high school freshman and students from low-income families, and work at converting county schools to high-tech, paperless institutions.

"I've been very upfront and open with citizens on what I'm going to do in the next four years," he said.

Merdon's campaign gained momentum after he won newspaper endorsements from the Washington Post and The Sun, as well as the local Patuxent Publishing weeklies.

Ulman has received endorsements from county teachers, police, firefighters and the Sierra Club. The unions bring important volunteer help, as well as votes, to Ulman's campaign.

Wallis and Ulman have criticized Merdon's promises as campaign froth designed to attract votes, but at variance with his record and belied by his campaign's financial backers.

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