Thankfully, political campaigns are late this year

Pols wait longer to get started

May 22, 2010|By Larry Carson, The Baltimore Sun

American political campaigns might never be as mercifully short as those in Great Britain, which typically last less than two months, but Howard County voters can be thankful that this year's candidates are starting much later than the 2006 crop did.

County Executive Ken Ulman, a Democrat, launched his 2006 effort a full year before the election, as did Republican Christopher B. Merdon. This year, Ulman hasn't formally declared his intentions so far, though he is raising money and is clearly running for re-election. County Councilman Greg Fox, a Fulton Republican, held his first public fundraiser in the summer of 2005. This year, he declared his re-election campaign just last month, seven months before the general election. So far, he's the only incumbent council member to have filed his candidacy with the county elections board.

State Sen. James N. Robey, a former two-term county executive, is also following the laid-back 2010 pattern, though he publicly launched his 2006 state Senate campaign against then-incumbent Sen. Sandra B. Schrader in November 2005.

What gives?

"I don't know the answer to that," said Fox, who so far has no opponent for his normally safe Republican council seat representing western and southern Howard. "It's not like the five of us here have time to be campaigning."

Fox expects to start going door to door in June, he said. He, like two other council members, Democrats Courtney Watson and Calvin Ball, has a full-time job and a family in addition to his supposedly part-time council duties.

"You're doing the job. That's different than talking about doing the job," said Ball, who has novice Republican candidate Anthony Jordan angling for his council seat.

Watson, who is actively campaigning, agreed. "It just means I'm out in the county anyway." She has a serious challenger in Republican former delegate and state transportation secretary Robert L. Flanagan.

West Columbia Democrat Mary Kay Sigaty agreed with the other incumbents.

"I've been busy being a council member," she said. Sigaty faces a primary challenge from Alan Klein, a critic of the downtown Columbia rezoning she helped push to fruition. Republican Tom D'Asto is also running for her council seat.

Clearly, the fact that there are no open public offices up for grabs this year is making a big difference. Unlike 2006, when the county executive and four of the five council members seats were open, every Howard County office this year has an incumbent running for re-election. That inevitably changes the dynamics of the campaigns, especially for someone like Fox, who had an active primary election opponent in 2006 in former county Police Chief Wayne Livesay.

Trent Kittleman, another former Ehrlich administration official who is running for Ulman's job as county executive, said she took extra time to evaluate her chances before declaring herself a candidate in February.

"A lot of Republicans were taken aback at the backlash against [ President] George [W.] Bush " she said, and took longer to make plans until clear signs emerged that Democrats and incumbents might be facing that same backlash this year. Besides, as someone who hadn't planned to run for office until urged by other Republicans last fall, "I wanted to take more time to evaluate."

Ulman's answer wasn't too different from Fox's when he was asked why he hasn't formally begun his campaign.

"Because I'm focused on managing the county and getting through the budget," he said. "There's plenty of time later in the year for campaigning."

That brings up another reason for this year's late starts — incumbents get to campaign just by doing their jobs. The longer they wait to officially launch their campaigns, the less time their challengers have to respond or attack.

"You can take a different tack," said county Democratic Party Chairman Michael C. A. McPherson. "I'm busy doing the people's work who elected me," he said, mimicking an incumbent's potential reasoning.

When Ulman climbs a roof in River Hill to help install solar panels as television and print reporters watch and take notes, or announces new legislation to allow wineries in Howard, he attracts far more attention than a political unknown can garner with weeks of rush-hour sign waving.

"It makes sense for nonincumbents to start early and run often," to steal from the old Chicago saying about voting early and often, said Donald F. Norris, chairman of the department of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he is also a political science professor. "It also makes sense for established and popular incumbents not to start too early, as it gives their opponents something to shoot at,"

"We've been campaigning the last four years through the job we do," Robey said. Two novice Republicans are vying to run against him. Kyle Lorton started months ago. This month, Jody Venkatesan, 39, a financial systems auditor who lives in Stone Lake on Route 216 near Emerson, joined the hunt.

Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a southeastern county Democrat, added a more practical reason for new candidates to start earlier four years ago. "We had to file to begin fundraising," she said.

Terrasa, who ran for an seat left open when then-Councilman Guy Guzzone ran successfully for the House of Delegates, faces a formidable challenge this year. FormerCcouncilman Dennis R. Schrader, homeland security director in the administration of Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., is working to unseat her this year.

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