Before a large crowd of supporters at Kahler Hall in Columbia Saturday morning, District 1 County Council member Courtney Watson made the long-awaited announcement: She is, officially, running for Howard County executive.
Current County Executive Ken Ulman and Congressman John Sarbanes, a Democrat from the 3rd congressional district, gave a wink to the anticipation that had built up to the announcement as they introduced Watson.
"Excited about the big, secret announcement that we're all here to be a part of?" Ulman asked, to laughter from the crowd.
Watson, 51, a Democrat who has represented parts of Ellicott City, Elkridge and Hanover on the council since 2006, said she decided to run because she wanted to be more involved in shaping the county’s future.
“After a period of discernment and reflection about how I could best serve my community in the future, the answer was clear to me – it is to do more,” she said.
Watson's campaign launch comes three months after Republican county executive candidate Allan Kittleman, a West Friendship lawyer who represents District 9 in the state Senate, announced his own bid in June. At the time, Kittleman said he wanted to offer voters a choice on the best direction for the county.
In contrast, a common theme at Watson's event was continuity. Ulman said Watson would be the best candidate to take the torch and continue the work he had started during his two terms as executive.
"We have built the best quality of life of any county in the United States of America," he said. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Let's continue the progress, continue the path we're on."
Watson focused on her Howard County roots as she led supporters through her journey to the big decision.
“As a child growing up in this great county, I reaped the benefits of it while attending good schools, and sharing in a rich and growing diversity in the new town of Columbia,” she said. Watson grew up in Clarksville and graduated from Atholton High School.
She first got involved in local politics when, as a mother with children in the Howard County Public School System, she joined with other parents to advocate for building more schools to ease overcrowding.
From 2002 to 2006, she served on the school board.
“I felt I needed to do more and the community needed the voice of a parent, and the perspective of a parent, on the board,” she said.
Watson said education would be her priority as county executive. She pointed to the County Council’s accomplishments of the last two terms: “Most importantly, we have made the public schools a funding priority and provided the school system with the resources it needs to become a world-class school system.”
She also cited public safety, support for senior citizens, job creation and environmental stewardship as priorities.
If elected, Watson would be the eighth Democratic county executive and the second woman to hold the job. Democrat Liz Bobo, who served from 1986 to 1990, was the first female county executive.
Sarbanes said Watson excelled at connecting with voters. "She puts constituent service at the top of her list and she understands that you have to connect with people on a personal level," he said.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski also endorsed Watson. Although she was not at the event, she released a statement calling Watson "determined, dedicated and duty-focused."
Watson's father, former County Executive Ed Cochran, sat in the front row as she made her announcement.
"Of course, I'm very proud," Cochran said. "I think she will make a great county executive."
Watson's opponent, Kittleman, welcomed her to the race. He said he was looking forward to "strong public debate" in the campaign to come.
"It's not my plan to dramatically change Howard County," he said. "It's my plan to move us forward and improve our educational system even more ... we can always improve."
In an interview, Watson said the choice for voters would be about which candidate's vision was compatible with their hopes for Howard County.
“I think it will be about who is the best person to lead the county forward, and keep the county on the right track and continue to make it better,” she said.
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