Arnold resident Nancy Weber hasn't decided whom she'll vote for in the Anne Arundel County executive race, but she knows one thing: "I'd like to see more Republicans in office."
Weber recently met Republican candidate Steve Schuh, a state delegate, during one of his door-knocking tours, and he said he feels the same way, responding, "Hear! Hear!"
For that matter, so does incumbent Laura Neuman, who told volunteers at a recent pep talk in Severna Park that they need to stay focused on keeping Anne Arundel County government in the hands of the GOP.
On paper, Anne Arundel remains a Democratic county — 42 percent Democrats, 35 percent Republicans, and the rest unaffiliated or belonging to third parties. But the county has a history of supporting Republicans — six of the eight county executives since the office was created in 1964 have been Republican.
The GOP is counting on one of these two — newcomer Neuman or experienced Schuh — to carry the party past the scandal of John R. Leopold, who was elected county executive twice as a Republican before resigning in disgrace in 2013 after his criminal convictions of misconduct in office.
The winner in the June 24 primary will face the uncontested Democratic nominee, former county sheriff George F. Johnson IV, in the November general election.
The state GOP has a lot at stake in Anne Arundel's results, says Nathan Volke, chairman of the county's Republican Central Committee. First, he says, Arundel can prove that a major jurisdiction in Maryland can be run with conservative values. Second, the winner could be groomed for a future gubernatorial run.
As the fifth-largest jurisdiction in Maryland, "Anne Arundel County is uniquely situated to be an example to other counties to see what it looks like to have Republican principles in action," Volke said, noting that the four larger jurisdictions — Baltimore City and Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George's counties — are all led by Democratic chief executives.
"It's huge that we keep the county executive of Anne Arundel County," said Joe Cluster, director of the state Republican Party.
So far, the campaign to take up that conservative mantle has been, at times, personal.
The two have traded barbs about campaign tactics and ethics. Neuman sharply criticized Schuh for having former Leopold staffers work for his campaign, and Schuh accused Neuman of allowing county employees to attend a political function on county time.
Neuman has repeatedly complained that Schuh talked to her mother in an attempt to dig up dirt, while Schuh hammers away at Neuman for having a registered lobbyist for developers as her chief campaign fundraiser.
The race has been costly, too. Already, the two have spent a combined $1.2 million on radio, TV and online ads, as well as direct mail and professional campaign staffs. By comparison, the four Republican candidates for governor have spent just shy of $1.7 million, according to campaign finance records.
"And the robocalls haven't started yet," Volke noted.
There's been so much interest in the race that the Republican Party scheduled a debate between Neuman and Schuh for Friday night, following two earlier debates that drew hundreds of spectators each. The party plans to stream the final debate online.
Schuh's been building his campaign team and treasury for at least 21/2 years after twice being elected to the House of Delegates. When Leopold resigned, he applied to be the replacement, but the County Council passed him over in favor of Neuman.
Neuman was a newcomer to politics when she was appointed county executive in February 2013, having mainly worked for technology companies. She decided to run for a full term last summer and has been playing catch-up ever since.
Both candidates say their polls show the race is going their way, and both say they're willing to spend whatever it takes to win the primary.
"We'll raise as much as we can, and we'll spend it all," Neuman said.
Said Schuh: "We certainly have the resources to do everything we need to do."
Republicans are planning a statewide unity event after the primary, and it's being held in Severna Park in part because of the tight and contentious county executive race.
"It's going to be one of our bloodiest counties for primaries," Cluster said.
Despite their tough fight, the candidates agree on many issues and acknowledge that the other is a formidable opponent. Both espouse typical Republican policies: lowering taxes, promoting economic development, improving public safety and running the county efficiently.
"In fairness, we are probably aligned in many areas," Neuman said.
Where the two candidates diverge is on specific taxes and fees.
Neuman knocks Schuh for voting for state legislation that required certain counties to enact stormwater fees, passing on the cost of programs to prevent stormwater pollution. She points to her veto of Anne Arundel's stormwater fee, which the County Council overrode.
Schuh criticizes Neuman for a small property tax increase last year and has pledged a series of property tax cuts if elected.
Schuh and Neuman have completely different life stories, but both developed a competitive drive that led them to success in their careers.
Neuman, 49, tells her story frequently: growing up in Baltimore, dropping out of high school and moving out as a teenager. She earned a GED and took college courses, but her life was upturned when she was raped at 18.
The rapist wasn't caught until Neuman was 37, after she pressed Baltimore police to reopen her case and it was solved with a matched fingerprint. By then, Neuman had earned an MBA at Loyola University, though she never finished her bachelor's degree.
Neuman built a career as an executive at tech companies and found her greatest success with a company called Matrics, which sold for $230 million in 2004, three years after she left.
She went public with her rape story and became an advocate for victims, but said she was driven to do something more for her community. She was working as the economic development director for Howard County when she jumped at the chance to apply to fill Leopold's seat.
"Growing up as I did, it never occurred to me I could be in this role," she said. "I've sort of lived the American dream."
Schuh, 53, grew up mainly in the Anne Arundel suburb of Crofton, the son of a golf pro. He worked summers at the Crofton Country Club as a teen and graduated from the private Severn School and Dartmouth College before pursuing a career in investment banking. He later earned graduate degrees at Harvard and the Johns Hopkins universities and left investment banking in 2002 to pursue his own investments.
Schuh and his business partners own several restaurants, a health club and a golf course. He first ran for public office in 2006 and won a seat as a delegate for the northeastern part of Anne Arundel. He was re-elected in 2010.
He has a personal philosophy dubbed "learn-earn-return." It boils down to spending the first third of one's life focused on education, the second third on building a career and the final third on giving back. For Schuh, politics is his way to give back.
Schuh believes he can make more of a difference for his community as county executive, compared to being one of 141 state lawmakers, and a member of the legislature's greatly outnumbered minority party. Republicans have a majority on the County Council.
The county executive, who makes $130,000 a year, oversees a government with more than 4,000 employees and a $1.3 billion annual budget, and hires department heads, including the county's police and fire chiefs.
As the primary approaches, the campaign has intensified. Both have sent mailers to voters comparing the other to Gov. Martin O'Malley — a tactic expected to strike a nerve with Republicans. On the streets, they meet a mix of undecided voters and die-hard supporters.
On a recent weekday afternoon, Schuh encountered Thomas P. George Sr. in his yard. "Steve Schuh!" George called out.
George, a retiree, used the encounter to vent about neighbors running businesses from their homes and having improperly tagged vehicles.
"It's time for a change," he said. "We need somebody that can fix all this stuff."
Neuman encounters her share of supporters, too. On a walk through Millersville, Army veteran Lloyd Givler teared up when he talked about Vietnam and embraced Neuman when she thanked him for his service.
"She's everything I like in a Republican — to reduce taxes and reduce costs," he said.
Neuman said she's done good work in her year as county executive and deserves a shot to continue. "Do you want someone who has delivered or someone who makes promises?" she asked.
Schuh said he can do better than Neuman. "I'm the candidate that can take our county to the next level," he said.
Job: County executive, Anne Arundel County. Former Howard County economic development director and tech executive.
Family: Separated, two school-age children.
Residence: Gibson Island
Job: Two-term state delegate. Former investment banker who is now a partner in multiple restaurant ventures, a golf club and a health club.
Family: Divorced, two adult children.