Sometimes, politics is so entwined with community-based good works and elected officials' public service that it can be hard to separate them.
The eighth annual Howard County Muslim Council food drive and picnic last week is a good example. The event, conceived after the Sept. 11 attacks to help combat stereotypes, combined the local Muslim community's desire to help the poor and be a vital part of the county's public life with the Community Action Council's need for help with its food bank.
The annual event attracts many public officials, who go to offer support and, by their presence, perhaps attract some, too. The next election is just a year away, and most candidates are busily raising money.
County Executive Ken Ulman, Rep. John Sarbanes and all four Democratic County Council members stopped by. They were joined by Democratic state Sen. James N. Robey, who as county executive worked to reach out to area Muslims after 9/11; Democratic Del. Guy Guzzone; and county police, fire and school officials, including Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin, school board Chairman Frank Aquino and three other elected board members. Two candidates for the House of Delegates, Democrats Jon Weinstein and Maryann Maher, attended.
The county's Muslim community, led by its council's president, Dr. Rashid A. Chotani, collected about 10,000 pounds of nonperishable food for the struggling Howard County Food Bank through personal donations and from gifts solicited at area food stores over the previous week. Sunday's rain and cold pushed the group's annual picnic and celebration across Route 108 from Cedar Lane Park to the Dar-al-Taqwa Mosque, whose leaders donated use of their building.
"You see Muslims, Christians and Jews," Chotani said, looking around as children scurried about clutching pink cotton candy and popcorn, while adults sat at tables eating grilled chicken and hamburgers and chatting. "I just want this to grow and bring all Muslims together" with the rest of the county, Chotani said.
Ulman told the group that "this food is going to folks all over Howard County who are in need. For a long time, we have not seen the kind of need we see now."
Ulman said he "deeply appreciates" the effort. "Thank you for opening up the doors [of the mosque] to the broader community."
The collection exceeded previous efforts by several thousand pounds, Chotani said, and Community Action Council leaders who attended were happy for the extra help in a year when newly selected CAC President Bita Dayhoff said demand for food is up by 30 percent.
"It makes a tremendous impact," Dayhoff said. The CAC, a private nonprofit group funded mostly by government, is now helping 500 to 600 families with 30,000 pounds of food donations monthly. The higher demand has forced the anti-poverty agency to solicit grant money to buy food, because donations are not enough.
The Muslim drive helps bring the need to the attention of the business community and to residents accustomed to thinking of Howard County as a prosperous place, she said.
'Smart growth' advocacy
Fall is a time of heavy fundraising activity by politicians, but they're not the only ones.
A new 501(c)(4) political advocacy group called the New City Alliance is interested in campaigning for General Growth Properties' vision for downtown Columbia and announced its formation last week. Co-founder David Yungmann said members will be soliciting funding and doing direct mailing and knocking on doors, plus holding events to push the "smart growth" concept that the GGP plan represents in a county more used to development on virgin land.
"We're trying to build our brand and change the way people think about development," said Yungmann, who like most in the group is involved in the real estate or development business. Members plan to continue working to boost individual parts of the GGP plan long after the County Council approves new zoning for downtown.
"This will not end with the council vote," he said.
The New City Alliance is led by Yungmann, Lin Eagan, Michael Davis and Phil Engelke, with support from Jud Malone, all of whom have their own small groups already working to boost the GGP plan.
But Yungmann said this new group will mount a bipartisan, political, issue-based campaign.
Individual politicians are busy, too.
Robey had a well-attended event at the Elkridge Furnace Inn on Tuesday night that drew Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. Weinstein, who has filed as a delegate candidate in District 9a, now represented by Republicans Gail H. Bates and Warren E. Miller, has an event scheduled that Ulman and other elected Democrats are to attend.
Kyle Lorton, 51, of Highland, a sales official at W.R. Grace, is the GOP candidate for Robey's seat.
Republicans are also raising money. State Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, the Senate minority leader, has a fundraiser scheduled, and first-time hopefuls Ed Priola and Jeff Robinson, running in Democrat-dominated District 13, are holding multiple small events to build enthusiasm and finances.
Priola, 55, of Owen Brown launched his campaign Oct. 15 at Nottingham's in Columbia. A three-year resident, he's public information officer for the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation based in Washington. High unemployment and lower taxes are two of his big issues, he said.
"The party in control with such bad indicators [as high unemployment] is not going to stay in control," he said.