The race to lead Maryland's most affluent county began Tuesday as state Sen. Allan H. Kittleman launched his bid to become just the second Republican to be elected Howard County executive.
In an afternoon appearance at the Columbia Lakefront, Kittleman, 54, said there's still room for improvement in the Baltimore-Washington suburb lauded for its public schools and featured in national magazines as one of the country's best places to live.
"Even though we are on top, it will take hard work and commitment to stay on top," Kittleman told a crowd of about 200 people at Lake Kittamaqundi.
"Being No. 1 is not good enough when we still have an achievement gap in our public schools," he said, referring to lagging test scores among African-Americans. "Being No. 1 is not good enough when we have families who are struggling to survive due to medical or economic issues. Being No. 1 is not good enough when businesses have to wait months to get permits or inspections."
He is the first candidate to enter the race to succeed Democrat Ken Ulman, who is barred by term limits from seeking re-election in 2014. Ulman signed on last week as the running mate of gubernatorial candidate Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown.
Many county politicians and political observers expect Kittleman to face Democrat Courtney Watson, a second-term County Council member from Ellicott City. Watson, 50, says she hasn't decided whether to run.
Kittleman stood apart from others in his party on two high-profile issues in Annapolis the past two sessions. He was the only Republican state senator to support the 2012 bill legalizing same-sex marriage in Maryland. This year, he was one of two to vote to abolish capital punishment.
He describes himself as a fiscal conservative, but in his remarks Tuesday emphasized that government has a role to play in helping people.
"Government cannot solve all our problems," he said. "However, we cannot, we must not turn our backs on those who are in crisis."
He said education, economic development and improving transportation would be themes of his campaign.
Kittleman is seeking to become Howard County's ninth executive, and only the second Republican to hold the office since it was established in 1968.
Democrats have long held an advantage in county voter registration. The most recent figures show 48 percent of the county's 203,230 registered voters are Democrats, 29 percent are Republicans and 21 percent are not affiliated with any party.
"OK, folks, I know what you're thinking," he said Tuesday. "How in the heck is a Republican going to win countywide?"
He didn't directly answer the question but said he's a Republican because of the example set by his father, the late Sen. Robert H. Kittleman, an early champion of civil rights for blacks.
Loretta H. Shields, chairman of the Howard County Republican Party, said party registration numbers do not tell the whole story.
"There is no reason that we cannot win, especially if we have the right candidate," said Shields. She said Kittleman "does appeal to a wide range of citizens in Howard County."
Kittleman represents a General Assembly district that includes the western part of Howard and a portion of Carroll County.
After serving six years on the Howard County Council, Kittleman was appointed to the Maryland Senate in 2004 to succeed his father. He's been re-elected twice, winning 60 percent of the vote in 2006 and 64 percent in 2010.
Watson, an insurance executive, touts her cross-party appeal, noting that her eastern county district was long represented by Republicans.
She has a financial edge, according to the most recent campaign finance reports filed in January. Kittleman — a former Senate minority leader — had $184,194 in the bank while Watson had $374,457.
Kittleman estimated that it would cost $800,000 to run a general election campaign for county executive.
Two other officials whose names were commonly mentioned in connection with possible runs for the open executive seat — Del. Guy Guzzone and Councilman Calvin Ball, both Democrats — have said in recent weeks that they won't pursue the office, clearing a path for Watson.
Both men questioned Kittleman's appeal countywide. Guzzone said Kittleman's record in the Senate, particularly on economic matters, shows that he's been "pretty clearly a staunch Republican."
Ball said he did not believe Kittleman could overcome a strong Democratic tide in Howard.
"He was a [Mitt] Romney delegate when the county went heavily for President Obama," Ball said. He said he doubted Kittleman's votes on gay marriage and capital punishment "will erase a 20-year career of being a strong Republican."
Kittleman, in his remarks Tuesday, tied his vote on gay marriage to his father's example.
"This is truly the civil rights issue of our generation, and I wasn't going to let politics get in the way of freedom and equality," he said.
Allan H. Kittleman
Job: Attorney specializing in worker's compensation law
Resides: West Friendship
Education: B.A., University of Maryland, Baltimore County; J.D., University of Maryland School of Law
Personal: Married to the former Robin Tobin, four children