A hard run for office

Helton sees campaign for executive as `combat sport'

Maryland Votes 2006

November 05, 2006|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,sun reporter

If you've received a postcard or newspaper insert from Ann C. Helton in the past few months, you likely know what the word nepotism means, as defined by Webster's Dictionary. You've seen County Executive David R. Craig's face superimposed on the body of a marionette, dangled by a "developer." And you've seen an elderly woman vigorously scolding Craig.

At the very least, Helton's campaign has made a few voters chuckle. But the Hagerstown native, who was voted "class clown" in high school and was at one time a rising star in Maryland politics, hopes they also glean that she is a fiscal conservative who would halt unmanaged growth.

Over lunch at a seafood restaurant in Forest Hill, Helton said she has nothing personal against Craig.

"It's a combat sport, no question," she said of campaigning. "Pow, pow, pow. Boom. Push back, push back. I won't be Swift-boated, and he knows that. I will come back."

Helton, 67, who at candidate forums across the county introduces herself as a "5-foot-2 grandmother," has taken up the challenge of overcoming not just voting trends that have favored Republicans in recent years, but also carving out her own identity.

With her husband unable to win a spot in local government in recent attempts, GOP leaders say the county's voters have spoken when it comes to candidates with the last name Helton.

"The Heltons are desperate to get elected again in this county," said Republican Central Committee Chairman Michael Geppi. "They have tried over and over again, and the voters in this county have told them repeatedly, `It's not gonna happen.'"

Helton, born Ann Corderman, was raised on a farm in Washington County. Her father, a World War II veteran, worked 10-hour cycles as a railroad engineer, which meant her mother had to be prepared at all hours to take the family car to pick him up and take him home.

Extracurricular activities were a must for their three children, of whom Helton is the oldest.

"The center of my social life was not my high school but my church," she said. "We all went to camp, sang in choir, went to Sunday school. It was a mass social life."

There was public service in her blood - an uncle was mayor of Hagerstown, and a cousin became a circuit court judge - but public life didn't catch her eye.

"I was too busy using the left side of my brain," she said.

After attending Hood College as a music major, Helton became a special education teacher in the Baltimore school system and later joined the League of Women Voters.

As a lobbyist for the group, she delved into issues and gave state legislators nonpartisan advice. Those experiences precipitated her arrival on the Anne Arundel County Council in 1974. It was her first term as an elected official, but some in Maryland political circles were noticing. Fours years later, she was courted to challenge Republican Sen. Edward T. Hall, whose district covered Calvert and Anne Arundel counties.

As she began to put together a campaign, then-Baltimore County Executive Theodore G. Venetoulis, who had declared himself a gubernatorial candidate, asked Helton whether she would be his running mate. After initially rebuffing his request, she obliged, becoming the first female lieutenant governor candidate in Maryland.

"She was one of the real bright stars of that region, everyone had a wonderful opinion of her," Venetoulis said. "Given exposure, you knew she was going to be a star."

Though they lost, Helton found work with the state department of human resources and later as executive director of the Child Support Enforcement Administration, overseeing a $35 million budget and 900 employees.

In 1980, she separated from her husband and met Arthur H. Helton Jr., a Democratic state senator from Harford. He was defeated in 1982 and has been unable to reclaim elected office, despite shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars from his own pocket.

But for nearly 30 years, Ann Helton never sought another elected office. So when she announced that she was going to run for county executive this year, it raised more than a few eyebrows. Helton bristles at the notion that she couldn't run her own campaign.

"This is more than pillow talk," she said in an April interview. "I have a mind of my own, and it will be to [Craig's] peril to find out that I intend to use that mind of mine."

Harry V. Webster, president of the Harford Land Trust, said he saw Helton's leadership qualities firsthand during her tenure as president.

"She laid a lot of groundwork that we're continuing," Webster said.

Helton said she was confident that she had distinguished herself as a legitimate candidate.

"There is no question in my mind that I have accomplished what I set out to do in this campaign, and that is to completely define myself, not as an appendage of my husband," she said.

But many political observers say Helton's focus has been not on her own qualifications but criticizing Craig.

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