Running for public office in a district where your party is a minority is always tough, but registered Democrats now enjoy a slight edge in Republican-dominated District 9a, covering western Howard County and Ellicott City.
Republicans hold all the public offices in District 9a, but since the last state and local elections in 2006, registered Democrats have slipped past the Grand Old Party, 26,434 to 25,666 as of July 21. There are also 12,427 unaffiliated or other voters, including one registered Whig, according to election board records.
By contrast, Republicans running in Democrat-dominated District 13, covering the southeastern county, have a much more difficult task. There, Democrats have a 20,000-voter edge in registrations, with just 17,643 independents.
"It's definitely daunting," said Republican candidate Jeff Robinson, who recently announced his campaign for the House of Delegates. "They [Democrats] have a 51 percent majority themselves" in registrations.
The Democratic edge in District 9a is minimal, but important, Democrats said.
"It shows that there's a trend and a change in the demographics. It's a rallying cry for people in the district who until now had thought there's no chance of winning," said John Weinstein, a Democrat vigorously organizing and raising money to unseat either Republican Del. Gail H. Bates or her close ally Del. Warren E. Miller next year.
Miller and Bates make the point that registrations don't predict how people will vote or who will show up to vote on Election Day, and they, along with state Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, the Senate Minority leader, still feel secure. Kittleman's district includes a portion of southern Carroll County, too, which strengthens him further.
Miller said some of those Democrats are old Howard County families who are fairly conservative in their outlook and often vote Republican.
"Gail and I don't rail against Democrats. We rail against liberals," he said.
He was more nervous about the 2006 election because of a heated Republican primary, he said, than he is about 2010. With high unemployment and the state still facing mounting deficits, he feels voters will be more likely to blame Democrats.
"A fair number of Republicans register as independents, but still vote Republican," Miller contended.
Bates said she sees little significance in the registration change.
"There was a heavy [Democratic] voter registration drive heading up to the  Obama election," she said, noting that Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain won the district, if narrowly.
"Traditionally, [voters] have supported more conservative candidates," she said about her constituents.
David Osmundson, a western county Democrat who ran against Bates and Miller in 2006 and lost, agreed that maybe 10 percent to 15 percent of registered Democrats have voted Republican in the past, and he expected to lose. But the increasing Democratic registrations signal a change.
"I would be worried if I were a Republican. Very worried," he said.
In District 13, veteran Del. Frank S. Turner, a Democrat, said a Republican would have a very tough time, even though the GOP held the areas' state Senate seat for more than a decade until state Sen. James N. Robey won it for the Democrats in 2006.
"I think registration does matter. It's also about a philosophy," he said.
Schooled in government
When County Executive Ken Ulman asked 42 county high school students participating in a Leadership Howard County summer program Wednesday morning what percentage of county spending goes to the public schools, Glenelg High student Colin Osborne, 16, raised his hand and said 55 percent.
Ulman was impressed, since that's close to the answer of 60.5 percent. When you add in recreation and library programs plus the community college expenses, most of taxpayers' money goes to support the county's youths, Ulman said. "It goes to you all."
Osborne said later that his answer was a random guess, but he and the other students from 11 public high schools and four private ones got a quick course in how their local government works.
Ulman, County Council Chairwoman Mary Kay Sigaty and various county department heads attended and led the students through a role-playing exercise to let them see all the issues that must be considered before something like the skateboard park that opened in Centennial Park this year can be built.
What do you do, Ulman asked, if some people say they won't vote for you if you approve it, while other parents are fighting hard to get the park built?
They broke into small groups, each with a different department head, and talked about everything from how much the park cost, how and where it should be built, to how the nearby residents might feel. Sigaty said several county boards and commissions have youth members, and she encouraged the kids to join and find out about internships for next summer, when most will be preparing for their senior year.
Leadership Howard County runs three levels of programs, for young people, young professionals and older business and community leaders, said Stacie Hunt, president and CEO.
Osborne said he wanted to join the private nonprofit to build his leadership skills and help his college resume.
"It will help me speak up and be more vocal. I want to be a captain on our football team," he said.