For the first time in more than a decade, the sprawling House of Delegates district that extends from southwest Baltimore County through Howard County is in play.
With three long-serving incumbents retiring from District 12, a large field of competitors is hoping to pounce on a rare opportunity to win election in what is seen as a diverse and important district.
The wide-open race has attracted 13 candidates, including two physicians, a former speechwriter for Gov. Martin O'Malley and a former state lawmaker who is financing his campaign with $85,000 of his own money. It has also spawned an attack website, accusations of carpetbagging and state charges against one candidate.
Redistricting, which combined the more conservative Baltimore County part of the district with the more liberal voters of Howard County, has only added to the uncertainty — and the stakes.
"It's going to be a very historic thing for both counties," said state Sen. Edward Kasemeyer, a Howard County Democrat. They've not had this kind of a race for a long, long time. Politically, it will be fascinating how it comes out. Almost anybody could win."
The Republican field for District 12 is set. The winners of the Democratic primary on June 24 are to face Gordon Bull, Joseph D. Hooe and Rick Martel in November.
Kasemeyer and the retiring delegates — Democrats Elizabeth Bobo, James E. Malone Jr. and Steven J. DeBoy Sr. — are supporting Terri L. Hill, a Columbia doctor whose sister, Donna Hill Staton, was Howard County's first black judge.
Hill, 55, a plastic surgeon, is among 10 Democrats running for the three open seats. The Democrats hold similar positions on most issues, but each is putting in long hours, knocking on thousands of doors in the hope of gaining an edge.
Hill writes personal notes at each house she visits. It slows her down, she says, but she hopes that it makes more of a connection with voters.
"I was tired of standing on the sidelines complaining," she said.
Bobo says she is backing Hill because she's an "excellent candidate with a passion for justice."
Michael Gisriel, a former delegate and longtime lobbyist, lent $85,000 of his own money to his campaign.
Gisriel, 63, says the money, which he's used to purchase a billboard in Catonsville's business district, shows his commitment to the district. He says the four years he spent in the General Assembly from 1987 to 1991 make him the most experienced choice.
"This is the only district out of 47 in the state with no incumbents," he said. "I'm the only one in the field who's held elected office. I've worked in Annapolis for 30 years. ... Whoever else wins, I'll help the other two."
Gisriel, a former real estate columnist for The Baltimore Sun, was a licensed attorney from 1976 until 2009, when he was disbarred for depositing a $1,000 check belonging to former clients.
He blamed a "misunderstanding," and called the disbarment "excessive." He says he hopes voters will consider the sum of his experience. "It knocked me down, but I got myself up," Gisriel said. "I've got a lot more positives than negatives."
Gisriel is closely trailed in campaign financing by Hill and fellow Columbia physician Clarence Lam, who have $67,000 and $73,000 on hand, respectively.
Lam, a Johns Hopkins doctor and legislative aide to Baltimore County Del. Dan K. Morhaim, is campaigning on a Segway.
"I've personally knocked on over 10,000 doors," he said. "It's important to get a good pulse on the different issues and perspectives that cut across the entire district."
Lam, 33, says his experience with Morhaim sets him apart: "I know how bills are drafted and how to get them through the committee."
Nick Stewart, 29, the former O'Malley speechwriter, has been endorsed by the governor and by Malone.
A lawyer with Saul Ewing LLP, Stewart opposed Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's cuts to pensions for Baltimore police and firefighters. He has enlisted Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown's fundraiser Colleen Martin-Lauer and has $42,000 in the bank.
"You have to have a genuine message that will resonate with your neighbors," he said. "That's school construction and managing growth in Baltimore County and helping shape James Rouse's vision in Columbia."
Eric Ebersole, 56, a Catonsville resident who has $28,000 on hand, has taught in Howard County high schools for three decades. He's picked up endorsements from teacher organizations and says he hopes to continue as a teacher if elected.
"I'm an active teacher right now," he said. "It gives me a better viewpoint for education issues."
Renee McGuirk-Spence, 61, was a longtime aide to Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. The daughter of the late state Sen. Harry J. McGuirk, known in Maryland politics as "Soft Shoes," the Catonsville woman sees herself as the candidate best equipped to deal with education policy issues.
"The Department of Education could play a very important role with the local school systems, having specialists at the schools where the achievement gap is most problematic," she said. "It's not being addressed as well as it could be."
Several candidates in Baltimore County are running aggressively. Rebecca Dongarra, 46, a small-business owner who was runner-up to Tom Quirk in the Democratic primary for Baltimore County Council four years ago, reported $20,000 in campaign funds left to spend.
She's spoken out about development in Baltimore County, including plans to build a large mixed-use development known as the Promenade at Catonsville, partly on the grounds of the Spring Grove Hospital Center campus.
"We have to have legitimate Smart Growth. That is an example of not-smart growth," she said. "It's not transit-oriented development. That is an example of a developer trying to steer our community in not a smart way."
Lansdowne resident Brian Bailey, 29, a trade association consultant and former health policy manager, reported no campaign funds. He finished fourth in the Democratic primary for County Council.
"We try to engage voters on Facebook and Twitter, but also YouTube," he said. "Obviously, technology has changed political races, but you still need to go door to door and engage voters."
Bailey was charged this week with a criminal election law violation after a misleading authority line was placed on a website on which he accused Dongarra of being a single-issue candidate.
Bailey called the authority line a "mistake," but said he stood by the contents of the site.
"I think it's unfortunate that's the way he's tried to run his campaign," Dongarra said. "There's a need to work on the issues. I don't know why he's chosen to focus on me."
Dongarra and Bailey have been critical of Gisriel and Stewart, who moved into the district recently.
"There is plenty of homegrown local talent to give residents the options they need," Bailey said. "We didn't need folks from Roland Park or Silver Spring moving into our district to run for office."
Gisriel and Stewart say they have roots in Baltimore County, enjoy their new homes and plan to stay, win or lose.
"I'm not going anywhere," Stewart said. "We wanted somewhere that was small-town American and we liked Arbutus."
Also running are Adam Sachs, a Columbia resident who says he's the most progressive member of the field, and Pikesville lawyer Jay Fred Cohen, 80, who lives in Columbia and has pledged not to raise or spend more than $1,000 in the race.
Sachs, 51, a former Baltimore Sun reporter who now works in public relations, speaks of "placing people above corporations."
"It's clear that large corporations and special-interest groups have a lot of influence on the legislative process," he said. "It's pretty obvious I'm trying to appeal to people with a progressive mindset."
The Democratic candidates
Brian S. Bailey
Work experience: Trade association consultant, former health policy manager
Jay Fred Cohen
Work experience: Pikesville attorney, former Orphans' Court judge
Rebecca P. Dongarra
Work experience: Small-business owner, Dionysus' Kitchen
Work experience: Teacher in Howard County high schools
Work experience: Former member of the House of Delegates, lobbyist
Terri L. Hill
Work experience: Doctor with a solo practice
Clarence K. Lam
Work experience: Doctor with Johns Hopkins Medicine
Work experience: Director of government relations for the Maryland State Department of Education
Work experience: Public relations for health care providers
Work experience: Lawyer with Saul Ewing LLP