A direct-mail appeal to 20,000 mostly Republican voters this weekend is Howard County Republicans' last chance to pull what has been a losing charter referendum petition drive out of a death spiral as time runs out.
With two weeks until the Aug. 9 deadline for collecting 10,000 valid signatures to place a charter amendment on the Nov. 2 ballot, petition drive chairman Ken Aldrich said he has fewer than 3,000 signatures. He needs about 15,000 overall to end up with enough valid signatures for the Taxpayer Protection Initiative. Republicans want the charter to require a four-vote County Council majority to authorize any general tax increases, instead of a simple majority of three votes.
But County Councilman Greg Fox and other party officials have stepped in to help pay for and organize a direct-mail appeal.
At this time six years ago, Howard Republicans and tax protesters had conceded defeat in trying to get enough signatures for the same charter revision.
That failed effort came one year after then-County Executive James N. Robey had pushed through a 30 percent income tax increase.
This year, with Republicans predicting that Democrats are again intent on raising taxes in 2011, an identical charter-revision campaign seems again headed for failure.
Democrats point to Money magazine's recent choice of Columbia/Ellicott City as the second-best place to live in the nation and the county's AAA bond rating as evidence that they've done a good, prudent job running the county despite the recession. Several said the charter amendment effort is a simple election-year political gimmick, which Republicans hotly deny.
"I think it's a political ploy. They're doing it for the political value," said County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat.
Democratic Party Chairman Michael C.A. McPherson agreed. "We have excellent governance and a majority of the taxpayers understand this," he said.
In the sun-baked heat on July 16, a frustrated Aldrich and a small cadre of volunteers stood on the parking lot of what used to be Miller Bros. Ford on U.S. 40 in Ellicott City, trying to draw motorists to a "drive-through" signing event with little success.
"The only way we're going to make it is with a large mailing," Aldrich said after watching a handful of motorists drive in and sign the petitions in the first 45 minutes.
"People are still fat, dumb and happy. They're couch potatoes, observers," he said with disgust. "I'm just so frustrated."
Aldrich and Republicans insist that voters are outraged by the prospect of any tax increase. He blamed the stalled petition drive on recent heat, a lack of volunteers, the lack of places that will allow people to collect the names, election board delays and Republican candidates focused more on their campaigns than on the charter effort.
Aldrich complained that he's been ejected from grocery stores, shopping centers, the Columbia Festival of the Arts and other outdoor venues.
At a small fundraiser last Sunday for Trent Kittleman, the GOP candidate for county executive, she and other Republicans insisted that the difficulties are not because of the public's lack of interest or its satisfaction with what Democrats are doing.
"It's just hard to get signatures," Kittleman said. "It's not because people are not interested."
Her stepson, the Senate minority leader, agreed.
"We know they will raise our taxes," state Sen. Allan H. Kittleman told the 30 or so people gathered at his stepmother's house in West Friendship. "The people will sign it if we ask them. If it gets on the ballot, it will pass with flying colors."
But not even all Republicans want that. Charles C. Feaga, a 14-year Republican county councilman who attended the event, said he won't sign and doesn't think a charter change is a good idea, though he's strongly opposed to higher taxes.
Charles I. Ecker, the Republican former two-term county executive, who was not at the Kittleman affair but became honorary chairman of her campaign last week, agreed with Feaga.
"I don't like a tax increase, but sometimes it's necessary," he said, recalling that when he was elected in the midst of the 1991 recession, he had to raise property taxes. He appointed a committee to examine the issue before proposing the tax increase, which is how he thinks it should be done, he said.
Schooled in trademarks
The flashy red postcard/invitation to former University of Maryland football player Kyle Lorton's political fundraiser July 15 at Savage Mill featuring Terps football coach Ralph Friedgen attracted about 60 people, but neither his alma mater nor his rival, incumbent state Sen. James N. Robey, were amused.
Novice candidate Lorton wore a bright red polo shirt with the word "Terps" stitched into it and even donned a Terps football helmet to demonstrate his determination to beat his Republican primary rival, Jody Venkatesan, and then Robey, the Democrat who represents District 13.