Talking to students

Along with other county officials last fall, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman asks students at Talbot Springs Elementary School in Columbia to join them in a soda-free pledge. (Doug Kapustin/ Photo Special to The Baltimore Sun / October 20, 2011)

Ken Ulman's political profile certainly has grown in recent years. The Columbia Democrat became the youngest county executive in the history of the state of Maryland when he was elected in 2006 at age 32.

Last year, his statewide presence grew when he served as president of the Maryland Association of Counties.

And now, Ulman has become somewhat of a national name, serving as chairman of the National Democratic County Officials. The NDCO, a group representing more than 10,000 Democratic county officials from around the United States, provides resources and networking opportunities for local officials.

"It's a tremendous honor to be chair of the organization," Ulman said.


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Ulman got involved with the NDCO when he was first elected county executive. He was asked to join the organization by Chris Coons, a current U.S. Senator from Delaware who was serving as New Castle County executive at the time.

Ulman was named chairman of the NDCO earlier this year after Linda Langston, a supervisor from Linn County, Iowa, left the post to become first vice president of the National Association of Counties.

The NDCO, the Democratic affiliate of the nonpartisan NACo, holds meetings in time with the semiannual NACo conferences.

"We use both of those as opportunities to have our meetings and talk about the Democratic landscape and national speakers and political resources," Ulman said.

Ulman said he feels Democrats at the county level get left out nationally, but "if you look at state elections all over the country, the swing voters in many cases are in counties."

The NDCO, he said, aims to bring more of a focus to counties and their importance in national politics.

Because of his position as chairman of the NDCO, Ulman earned a spot as a superdelegate to this week's Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. He will also serve on the Democratic National Convention's executive committee, which will meet Friday, Sept. 7, the day after the convention concludes.

The NDCO also serves as an opportunity for county officials to connect with their counterparts around the country and share ideas.

"It's just great to have a sounding board and to be able to talk to colleagues around the country," Ulman said.

Asked what he's learned by being a part of the NDCO, Ulman said: "I think the biggest thing is realizing it makes me even more proud of how we've been able to embrace innovate solutions to challenges ... There are always new things to learn, but I've also learned we're doing very well."

Ulman is the first person from Howard County and the state of Maryland to chair the NDCO. He will serve a two-year term.

"It's just been a great experience to get to know folks around the country and to share our stories," Ulman said.

In addition to serving as a network for local elected officials, the NDCO aids in campaigns for Democrats seeking county seats.

"One of our goals is to be able to raise the money necessary to strategically help elected officials around the country," Ulman said.

He said the organization also serves as a resource for candidates seeking tips on running a website, using social media or other campaign techniques.

The NDCO is a resource from which Ulman stands to benefit as he mounts a campaign for a potential gubernatorial run in 2014.

"I'm really honored to have the opportunity to meet folks all over the country, to develop a network of support," Ulman said.

Asked about the potential benefits for his campaign, Ulman said: "Having more friends is a good thing no matter what you're doing ... Whether it's raising money or folks that have contacts and connections here in Maryland, we'll see how everything plays out."

Don Norris, chairman of the public policy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said the position will help Ulman raise his visibility outside of the state, like Gov. Martin O'Malley has done as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association. However, he doesn't think it will give Ulman any advantage in the 2014 Democratic primary should he run for governor.

"I think it raises his image and shows that he has some image within the Democratic Party outside of the state," Norris said. "I don't think that translates into votes or necessarily money."

In general, Norris said Ulman is doing "the right thing" in his gubernatorial campaign by going all over the state and introducing himself to other elected Democrats.

"For a county official form a small county, I think he's doing as well as can be expected," he said.