Twanmoh's race for council ends on a sour note

A big year for negative ads in Harford

November 12, 2006|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun reporter

As Valerie H. Twanmoh greeted voters outside Youth's Benefit Elementary School, the smile on her face hid her frustration.

The Democrat was making her third try at winning a seat on the County Council representing Fallston and Abingdon, and it had seemed as though things could be breaking her way. But she was disheartened by an eleventh-hour mailer sent out by her opponent, Republican Councilwoman Veronica L. "Roni" Chenowith. It portrayed Twanmoh as a big-developer ally who had been booted from her job as zoning hearing examiner. Automated phone calls reiterated the message the day before the election.

As the votes were counted Tuesday, Twanmoh found herself again on the outside looking in. In the Republican-leaning district, Twanmoh received 7,356 votes to Chenowith's 8,207. Brian Bittner, Harford's first Green Party candidate, garnered 563 votes.

"I have run my campaign based upon being honest and having integrity," said Twanmoh, a Democrat, as she waved to cars Tuesday. "When something like this comes out, this close to Election Day -- it's the antithesis of what I stand for and believe in."

Chenowith, who was greeting voters outside Fallston High School, said the mailer contained no false statements. She reiterated a familiar refrain when asked about it: "All's fair in love and war."

The piece said Twanmoh "wasted no time in approving HIGH DENSITY ZONING for two prominent Harford County developers." It did not include that Twanmoh, as zoning hearing examiner, could only reaffirm the approval by the council, which included Chenowith's vote in favor of the measure.

"It doesn't matter how I voted -- she did it. It's a fact," Chenowith said.

There were other parts of the mailer that Twanmoh said were inaccurate. It said she "caters to special interests" -- Chenowith said she was referring to Friends of Harford, the activist group that advocates smart growth and is wary of overdevelopment.

While the mailer said Twanmoh was asked to resign as hearing examiner after "four short months," Twanmoh said she had spent two years in the job, and resigned to take a position as people's counsel, where she served as a watchdog against proposed zoning changes.

A passage that said Chenowith fought to block high-density development during the last round of comprehensive rezoning referred to the rezoning process from eight years ago, Chenowith said. During this year's rezoning bill, which was vetoed by County Executive David R. Craig, only one council member proposed more amendments for increased density than Chenowith.

More than $30,000 of the $50,000 Chenowith raised for her re-election campaign came from development-related interests, according to a review by The Sun. But she said her pro-business stance doesn't mean she has been a rubber-stamp for development. The mailer said she has kept 14,666 new housing units from being built in District B.

Political observers said negative campaigning, particularly a slew of ads that some candidates called outright distortions, seemed to be especially prevalent in Harford this election season. In the District 34A House of Delegates race, one Republican mailer said Del. Mary-Dulany James and B. Daniel Riley, both Democrats, had voted to grant in-state tuition to illegal immigrants. The bill in question, however, specifically applied to legal immigrants who were residents of Maryland.

In the District 35A race, Democratic candidate Craig DeRan sent out a piece that said Republican candidate Donna Stifler had hired Joseph F. Steffen Jr., a former aide to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. accused of dirty tricks, to run her campaign. Stifler said she has never met Steffen.

Twanmoh's campaign countered Chenowith's mailer with a flier that was distributed to 3,000 homes. She lost by 671 votes -- her best showing yet against Chenowith, and slightly more than Bittner received for his third-party candidacy.

Critics of third parties often say they siphon votes away from Democratic candidates, a notion that irked Bittner.

"I think it's presumptuous to say that everyone who voted for me would've otherwise voted for the Democrat," he said. "The effect the Green Party or any third party had is great -- it gave over 500 people who voted for me an opportunity to have another choice."

Chenowith returns to the council as the most experienced member, flanked by four new members. A bout with leukemia forced her to spend time away from the council in the spring, but she said she is in remission and has been cleared by doctors.

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