Slow-growth issue isn't going away, regardless of election, advocates say

Political Notebook

November 12, 2006|By Larry Carson

The candidate backed by Howard County's biggest slow-growth advocates may have taken an election thumping Tuesday, but those pushing the issue are adaptable - and say it isn't going away.

"I think it was just a Democratic sweep, but the growth issue, I think, is still alive," said Angela Beltram, the former county councilwoman and Democrat who led a grass-roots revolt based on anger about a rezoning bill that County Executive-elect Ken Ulman supported.

Beltram, like others upset with council Democrats, backed Republican Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon for county executive because he stressed his vote against the contested "Comp Lite" bill and advocated a laundry list of slow-growth measures during his campaign.

Mary Catherine Cochran, another prominent local Democrat and growth critic who backed Merdon, says Ulman wasn't so bad after all.

"I think both Chris and Ken ran on campaigns of slow growth," Cochran said. "Ken adapted all of his signs in the last few weeks of the campaign specifically to capitalize on that issue. Ken has indicated a willingness to review the zoning process, and I believe he'll follow through."

Courtney Watson, Cochran's sister and the Democrat elected Tuesday to replace Merdon on the County Council, said the national aspect of the election has not changed local priorities.

"Both the county executive candidates were talking about growth," she said. "Growth is clearly the No. 1 issue in the county."

County Councilman Guy Guzzone, a Democrat close to Ulman, said Merdon and Republicans do not have a monopoly on the growth issue.

"The reality is we've been talking about slow growth also - forever," he said. "The reality is we delivered on that."

But voters wanted more, he said. "I think it's the overall package - a quality of life - and growth is a factor in that quality of life."

Ulman said that while growth is important, schools, public safety and other county services also are important.

"I think growth will always be an important issue in Howard County," he said.

Merdon attracted the slow-growth activists with promises to stop the planning for downtown Columbia for a year, to charge developers big impact fees to finance school construction and to create a board to judge whether new homes proposed for older neighborhoods are compatible with the homes already there.

"We ran on the right issue of trying to slow the growth in Howard County, improve education and deliver government services at a lower tax rate, but it was the wrong year for Republican candidates," Merdon said. "I don't think growth was an issue in this election. I think George Bush and Iraq were the issue."

Merdon, the father of two young children, said he plans to leave politics.

"I really feel good about what I did and the direction my life is heading in, and I don't have a desire to get back into it," he said. "That phase of my life is over."

State Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, Howard's only remaining Republican senator, agreed with Merdon's election analysis, but he said he hopes that the resolve to leave politics may soften with time.

Radio's Robey rumor

Perhaps the strangest rumor to emerge from this year's elections was one discussed on WBAL radio last week involving Howard County Executive James N. Robey, the state senator-elect.

Station news director Mark Miller speculated Wednesday on the idea that Robey - despite his election victory - might be named to a top public safety job in the administration of Gov.-elect Martin O'Malley.

Robey, a former police chief, and Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., a former judge, made a campaign commercial for O'Malley to bolster the mayor's image as a crime-fighter.

The theory, Miller said, was that Robey might be rewarded by an appointment to a Cabinet-level post, such as public safety director or state police superintendent, and then resign his new Senate seat, leaving a vacancy that the Democratic Party could fill.

Robey nixed the idea Thursday.

"I'm not going to be director of public safety, not homeland security director, not state police superintendent," he said. " ... If I wanted that, I would not have run for that [Senate] job."

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