Like most politicians, Greg Fox has at least two good reasons to go to the Howard County Fair.
"First, it's a lot of fun, especially to do with your family," said the Republican County Council member, whose district includes West Friendship, where the fair is held. "Second, there are a lot of constituents out here, so it's a good chance to be out here with our constituents."
Like any large gathering, the annual County Fair, which opened Aug. 3 and runs through Saturday, Aug. 10, is a great place — some say the best place in Howard County — for elected officials and wannabe elected officials to see and be seen.
Which is why on Sunday, Aug. 4, about a dozen of them marched in the Grand Opening Parade. Among them were Fox and fellow Republicans state Sen. Allan Kittleman, who is running for county executive, and Dels. Gail Bates and Warren Miller, as well as a half-dozen members of the school board and county Police Capt. John Newnan, who is running for sheriff.
It's also why both the county Democrats and the Republicans have had booths on the fair's main drag for as long as anyone can remember. And it's why inside the main exhibit hall, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, a Democrat running for governor, and his running mate, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, had their own booth, manned by a legion of young volunteers sporting Brown-Ulman T-shirts.
"There are lots of people here," noted volunteer Helen Sgouros, 15, of Ellicott City, who was at the Brown-Ulman booth with twin sister, Marie. "You catch a lot of people's attention."
The fair is held in western Howard, long the county's Republican stronghold. But that didn't stop Michael McPherson, chairman of the county Democrats, from pulling a long shift at the Democrats' booth Sunday — something he planned to do all week, he said.
The crowd at the fair, he said, is fertile ground for all county politicians.
"It's part of my outreach effort," McPherson explained. "If you're not visible, people don't know about you, and where better to maximize your visibility than at the Howard County Fair?"
He added: "I don't think of this as Republican territory. This is part of Howard County, which is mostly Democratic."
Still, Republican officeholders, while outnumbered by Democrats countywide, dominated the scene at the fair, at least on Sunday.
"The heart of the area of Howard County that elects Republicans is right here," said Miller. "If you're a Republican, this is probably the biggest event in Howard County."
Charles Feaga, a Republican County Council member in the 1980s and '90s, agreed, said the fair used to attract a wider variety of politicians.
"Going back 20 or 30 years, they all were here — none of them missed the Howard County Fair," said Feaga. With population shifts and the growth of Columbia, he said, many east county politicians "put their emphasis there."
But Feaga, who has been coming to Howard County Fairs since the first one, in 1946, and whose granddaughter was crowned Miss Howard County Farm Bureau on Sunday, said the fair remains something of a magnet for county politicians of all stripes and ZIP codes. He said he expected a good showing of politicians throughout the week — especially this coming weekend, when crowds peak.
'So many people'
Still, you'd be hard-pressed not to run into an elected official or two on any day at the fair, both Republicans and Democrats.
School board member Janet Siddiqui, who is running as a Democrat for a delegate seat in the Columbia-dominated District 13, didn't wait for the closing weekend. She marched in Sunday's parade with other members of the nonpartisan school board and spent much of the day in the Democrat booth.
"There are so many people, and you really get the word out about what your message is, and talk to people and see what people's issues are," she said. "People from all over the state come here to the fair, so you get a different perspective about what people's issues are."
Said Kittleman, a lifelong Republican: "People from throughout the county come here. It's not all people in the west. People in Columbia, Elkridge, Laurel come here, and you really get a sense of what they're thinking."
Kittleman, who turns 55 in October, said he has been coming to the fair for 54 years. His family farm is nearby, and his father, former state Sen. Robert Kittleman who died in 2004, knew the value of showing up at the popular annual event.
"I remember when I was in elementary school, my dad would give me five bucks and say, 'Run anywhere you want for the whole night,' because he would be working here at the Republican booth. … I have great and fond memories of the fair. … I can't remember the last time I missed one."
These days, of course, Kittleman's not running through the fair spending his father's cash on amusement rides and ice cream. He's at the Republican booth, chatting with fellow GOP officials, sharing handshakes and hugs with a seemingly endless stream of acquaintances and well-wishers.
Also a longtime regular at the fair is Bates, who like Kittleman lives in West Friendship — and is running for his state Senate seat.
"I have been doing the fair nearly every day since 1980," Bates said. Before she was a delegate, she said, she was on the GOP Central Committee, and since she only lived a mile or so away, "I was the one who was always opening and closing (the booth), making sure everything was staffed.
"I love it, you know. It's a great place to be and meet people."
A long tradition
Veteran county politicians say politicking has been part of the County Fair throughout its 67-year history.
They also say that election-year fairs, like next year, tend to attract more politicians, although this year's is the last before the 2014 primary election, which will be held June 24.
But despite the ever-present politicians, no one contends that politics dominate the Howard County Fair. Even the politicians say the weeklong event is still much more about pigs and pie eating than politics, more about cows and crop than candidates.
Fair President Blair Hill, while agreeing that the fair is "a great opportunity to meet your local politicians," suggested politics is more of a sideshow.
"We try not to be," he said, when asked if the fair was a political event. "We try to be neutral ground."
The fair, he said, "is more family fun, an opportunity to get together, see old friends. … People just want to come out and have a good time."
And if they feel the urge to shake hands with a few local politicians, well, they've come to the right place.