The Baltimore County Council could see big changes in the coming elections as most members face stiff primary challenges and a council veteran is stepping down.
Campaign signs are popping up all over the county and literature is arriving in mailboxes as candidates approach the June 24 primary. Four of the council's seven members — Democrats Cathy Bevins, Ken Oliver and Vicki Almond and Republican Todd Huff — are in spirited primary battles. And Dundalk's John Olszewski Sr. is retiring from the council, triggering a scramble among five Democrats for the party nomination.
The party infighting is somewhat of a rarity for politics in the county, where incumbents have often cruised through primaries. At stake is who will face the voters in November for the right to sit on the county's legislative body, which has the final say on county spending and land-use decisions. Four years ago, the council saw its greatest upheaval in a generation in the November election when five seats were taken by newcomers, two of them women.
One was Bevins, 55, the council chairwoman, who's being challenged in the primary by Jeff Beard, 55, a longtime General Motors employee and representative for the United Auto Workers.
On a recent afternoon, Bevins went door to door in a precinct of the east-side district that is new to her after redistricting, a neighborhood of modest homes near the city line. She says she's counting on her office's attention to detail when constituents call with problems.
"I think people will remember, whether their issue was big or small, we treated it with the utmost importance in our office," said Bevins, who is backed by County Executive Kevin Kamenetz as well as the unions representing county teachers, police officers and firefighters.
On his campaign website, Beard has criticized Bevins about everything from a rat problem in Hillendale to her vote to raise council members' salaries to her recent bill that would require background checks for county recreational volunteers, a measure that Beard said lacks teeth.
"I personally don't feel that our representative has done her job," Beard said as he waved a campaign sign and a small American flag at a busy intersection in Rosedale last week. He has picked up endorsements from the AFL-CIO, some local Democratic clubs, and former Councilman Joe Bartenfelder, who represented the district.
Over half of the more than $100,000 Beard has raised for the campaign came from companies connected to developer David Cordish.
"He's much more attuned to what is good for the county than Cathy, and much more attuned to the neighborhood and civic groups," Cordish said.
Bevins said Cordish opposes her after she voted in 2012 to allow redevelopment of the Middle River Depot, which will be competition for his Carroll Island Shopping Center.
"They're upset about me rezoning the depot, which I had 100 percent support for from the community," she said.
Beard also received significant support from companies connected to Continental Realty Corp. Through a spokesman, the company declined to comment.
Beard acknowledged the contributions but said they won't influence him if he's elected, and pointed to contributions that Bevins has received from other developers.
"I'm not going to have anybody pay me off or say, 'You owe me,'" Beard said. "The only people I owe are the taxpayers."
On the opposite side of the county, incumbent Ken Oliver of Randallstown again must defend his turf. The district includes Woodlawn, Randallstown and Owings Mills, and is the county's only district in which blacks are the majority.
Oliver, 69, a three-term councilman backed by Kamenetz, said constituents have reacted positively to new development in his district, such as the Walmart on Liberty Road and the Owings Mills Metro Centre, which features the county's largest library branch and a community college center.
"My top focus has been redevelopment and economic development," Oliver said, adding that improving school facilities is another priority.
Oliver was a subject of controversy three years ago when he had to resign from a position at the state's Business and Economic Development agency because of a county charter rule against council members holding state jobs. He is now a full-time councilman.
In 2010, Oliver faced six challengers in the Democratic primary, hanging on to his seat by 98 votes. One of those opponents — Julian Earl Jones, a Woodstock resident who placed second in 2010 — is back for a rematch. Also running is Makeda Y.A. Scott of Owings Mills, who is seeking public office for the first time.
"I think the councilman has been out of touch with the community and has not represented us well," said Jones, 51, a division chief in the Anne Arundel County Fire Department. "I've been a public servant for 30 years, and I'm really dedicated and committed to our community."
Jones said he wants to focus on reducing crime, improving schools and offering more recreational activities for youth. He also wants to start an incentive program to help property owners tackle blight.
Scott, 41, has worked in the political arena. She served as Rep. John Sarbanes' communications director and as a campaign strategist for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "I felt it was time for me to run and help my own community," she said.
Scott runs a small business, Soap Art, that makes cosmetic products. She says that as a business owner and mother, she is more attuned to the needs of the community than Oliver. She said revitalizing Owings Mills Mall and the Liberty Road corridor would be a top priority. She also wants to improve the public transportation system, which she says is inadequate, especially for the district's senior citizens.
In the nearby district that includes Pikesville and parts of Owings Mills, Almond, 65, of Reisterstown, is facing challenger Jon Herbst, 36, of Pikesville, in the Democratic primary. Almond beat Herbst in the 2010 general election, when he was a Republican, but he has switched parties. Development has been a focal point of the campaign.
At a recent debate between the two in Pikesville, Herbst, an attorney, said Almond has not done enough to revitalize the area's commercial corridor.
"These empty storefronts up and down Reisterstown Road are just not acceptable," Herbst said.
Almond said the district has seen many improvements since she was elected. She pointed to revitalization in Pikesville, such as the reopening of the Pikes Theatre last year. "In my mind, Pikesville is alive and growing," she said. Almond also pushed for the Foundry Row development at the site of the former Solo Cup property in Owings Mills.
Herbst is endorsed by Kamenetz as well as state Sen. Bobby Zirkin. Herbst says that while he supports Foundry Row, Almond was too quick to push the project through and didn't do enough to protect small businesses that could face competition from chain stores there.
Almond says local businesses will benefit from the development.
"Success breeds success," she said. "There is already a great clamor of people who want to move into this area and be part of this success."
In the county's northern half, Huff, a Republican from Lutherville, is being challenged in the GOP primary by Del. Wade Kach, who's served in the General Assembly for nearly 40 years. Kach says Huff hasn't represented the interests of the people in the district that stretches from Lutherville to the Pennsylvania line.
Kach says people in the district are unhappy with zoning decisions Huff made in 2012, when he allowed more development on rural property. One of the most controversial allowed Obrecht Properties to build more than 70 townhouses on York Road in Sparks.
Huff said the developer initially wanted to build more than 200 units, and that he was able to negotiate to scale back the plans. "I stand by the decisions that I made," he said.
Kach believes Huff hasn't shown enough independence from Kamenetz. "He's a tool of the county executive, and that is of great concern to me," Kach said.
Huff said he has always stood by his conservative values — opposing, for instance, the so-called "rain tax" and the expansion of the county's speed camera network. But he says working across party lines has helped him secure funding for projects such as the new community center under construction in Cockeysville. He also touted funding for renovations at Hereford High and air conditioning at Timonium Elementary.
"We've gotten more accomplished [for the district] than in many, many years prior to me," Huff said.
Huff, 46, faced criticism last year when he was charged with driving drunk in his county-issued SUV. He pleaded guilty and told a judge he was undergoing treatment for alcohol abuse. "It was well over a year ago and it's made me a better person," Huff said this week.
"I hope many people can learn from what I went through," he said.
If elected to the council, Kach said, he wants to focus on transparency in government, curtailing public spending and creating jobs in the private sector.
"I do get a lot of things done in the legislature, so I really know how to work across the party lines," Kach said.
The district that includes Dundalk has the most crowded field. Five Democrats and one Republican are vying to replace Olszewski, who is not seeking re-election after four terms.
Two council members — Democrat Tom Quirk of Catonsville and Republican David Marks of Perry Hall — face no opposition in the primary.
Baltimore Sun reporter Arthur Hirsch contributed to this article.