Craig calls vote mandate

Republicans hail a triumph

Democrats give a warning

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

County Executive David R. Craig vowed to run his campaign as if he were the underdog - raising money, making a slew of public appearances across the county and enlisting a small army of volunteers to work polls and the phones.

In the end, he needed every bit of it.

Craig defeated Democrat Ann C. Helton, who had not run for political office since the 1970s, by about 4 percentage points last week in a race that was closer than most political observers had predicted. Republicans said Helton battered Craig with negative advertising and benefited from national and state voting trends, while Democrats said she tapped into the fears of county residents who believe Harford is growing too quickly.

A poll that was circulating in GOP circles suggested Craig would capture 57 percent of the vote. But he didn't reach that figure in any of the six council districts, and lost every precinct in the Havre de Grace area, where he resides and was mayor for eight years.

Part of Helton's strategy was to raise questions about Craig's tenure there. Much of her more than $300,000 advertising blitz was critical of tax increases and spending that occurred while he was the Havre de Grace mayor, and a series of TV commercials featured elderly residents scolding him and yelling, "Shame on you, David Craig!"

"Ann Helton spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to tear him down, and it certainly had an effect," said Michael A. Geppi, chairman of the Republican Central Committee. "[The result is] more of a reflection of the amount of money she spent."

Craig's poor showing in southern Harford - despite representing the area for eight years in the General Assembly - was reflected in other Democratic gains. Voters in those districts elected the County Council's only two Democratic members, as well as two Democratic delegates.

Craig mitigated the damage with stronger showings in the county's northern stretch, as well as Bel Air and Fallston, though he fell far short of the totals racked up by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who defeated Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, the eventual statewide winner, 63 percent to 35 percent, in Harford.

Helton's campaign manager, George Harrison, who also worked with two-term County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann, said her strong showing in the GOP-leaning county shows that voters are uneasy about Harford's future.

"Ann's campaign plugged into the concern that the general voting public has about the direction of the county," he said. "Republicans should take note that there's a lot of concern."

During the campaign, the candidates traded barbs about whose development ties were more troubling - the financial backers of Craig's campaign, or Helton's business ventures with her husband, former state Sen. Arthur H. Helton Jr.

So it seemed fitting that on election night, Craig gathered with developers in the law offices of attorneys John J. Gessner and Joseph F. Snee Jr., anxiously watching precinct results trickle in that showed him running close with Helton. Meanwhile, Helton remained at home with her husband, eschewing a Democratic rally in downtown Bel Air.

When Craig emerged, he told supporters at his campaign headquarters that the victory was a "simple mandate from the people ... to [put an end to] crowding in schools, put deputies on the streets, and protect our farms. Those are the things that the people of Harford County selected tonight."

In an interview after his victory speech, Craig viewed the election as endorsing his spending policies.

"The win verifies that people agreed with what I was doing and with where we were going with government," he said.

His supporters noted that last week's result was similar to the outcome of the 1998 general election, which pitted Republican James M. Harkins against Arthur Helton. Harkins won by less than 5 percent of the vote after surviving an ad blitz from Helton. In Harkins' bid for a second term, he faced only token opposition.

Since he was appointed in July 2005 to replace Harkins, Craig has launched several initiatives. While new executives across the region were formulating transition teams and outlining policy last week, Craig will largely continue with business as usual, said his chief of staff, Aaron N. Tomarchio, who spent Thursday watching the absentee ballot count.

Among the priorities for his first full term - at least initially - is restarting comprehensive rezoning, the once-every-eight-years process that maps county growth. Craig vetoed the comprehensive rezoning bill in the spring, saying it allowed too much growth in the county's designated development envelope. He will be watched closely by those who said the veto was simply an election year statement, Democratic officials said.

Craig also must show the council that his capital spending initiatives - including a half-dozen new schools, a new sheriff's office in Edgewood, and a new county administration building - can be paid for.

"We'll have a very aggressive agenda to make sure we're prepared for the future while meeting the needs of today," Tomarchio said.

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