Courtney Watson

County Council Democrat Courtney Watson has scheduled a "special announcement" for Sept. 21 in Columbia, where she is expected to announce her candidacy. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun / June 5, 2013)

The race for the next Howard County executive is practically upon us. Republican state Sen. Allan Kittleman announced his bid in June; County Council Democrat Courtney Watson has scheduled a "special announcement" for Sept. 21 in Columbia, where she is expected to announce her candidacy.

Who knew that two graduates of Atholton Elementary would one day battle to lead Maryland's wealthiest county?

Leaders for the county's Democratic and Republican parties are gung ho about their respective candidates, who have about 14 months of campaigning ahead of the Nov. 4, 2014, general election.

Loretta Shields, chairwoman of the Howard County GOP, said she was "very excited about [Kittleman] being in the race."

Shields said she thought Kittleman was the more experienced candidate. "He's got experience at the county level, he understands what goes on at the state level and I'm looking forward to him coming back to the county level and leading us forward," she said.

Kittleman has served as a state senator from District 9 — which encompasses western Howard County, parts of Ellicott City and some of southern Carroll County — since 2004, when he was appointed to the seat to replace his late father, Bob Kittleman.

Prior to serving in the General Assembly, Allan Kittleman was a County Council member from 1998 to 2002.

Michael McPherson, chairman of Howard County's Democratic Central Committee, said he thought Watson had a lot of relevant experience for the county executive position.

"She has a good deal of experience at the local level," he said, "and that gives her a unique insight into what is really going on in the county and what is needed to continue the high quality of life here, which has been brought to the residents of this county by good, elected Democrats."

Watson has represented District 1 — which includes parts of Ellicott City, Elkridge and Hanover — on the County Council since 2006. Before that, she served a term on the Board of Education, including two years as chairwoman.

Both Shields and McPherson said the candidates would run on their accomplishments.

This race "gives them the opportunity to present two totally different records," Shields said.

"Anyone who runs for public office and has been active in public life has a record and they have to run on that record," McPherson said.

But beyond party stalwarts, experts said, the real focus of the race to succeed County Executive Ken Ulman will be to win over independent voters — particularly for Kittleman, whose Republican base in the county is smaller than the Democrats'.

As of Sept. 6, Howard County had 97,681 registered Democrats and 59,269 registered Republicans, according to the Board of Elections, a ratio of 1.6 Democrats for every 1 Republican. There are 44,367 independent voters up for grabs.

Howard County has only had one Republican executive, Chuck Ecker, who served from 1990 to 1998.

Ecker, 84, said he thought Kittleman would have to work hard to win. "It's going to be difficult, but any campaign is difficult," he said.

He attributed his own success to vigorous campaigning up until Election Day. "I think I worked hard campaigning and I'm not sure my predecessor did," he said, referring to the incumbent county executive at the time, Liz Bobo.

Ecker won the 1990 race by 421 votes.

Chris Merdon, a Republican and former County Council member who ran against Ulman in 2006, said he thought his loss was due in part to a hostile national climate toward Republicans halfway through former President George W. Bush's second term.