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Craig hopes experience translates into victory

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Second in a series of profiles of candidates for governor.

If a political resume were enough for victory, David R. Craig would be a sure thing to win the Republican nomination for governor.

Havre de Grace city councilman, mayor, member of the House of Delegates, state senator, and for the past decade, Harford County executive. Craig has filled all those roles in his 64 years, and, judging by his election results, voters have been happy with the job he's done.

"As county executive, I think he's done the kinds of things I'd like to see a governor do," said Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the Republican nominee in 1994 and 1998. "I've always believed the best way you can tell what somebody's going to do in the future is to look at what they've done in the past."

Nevertheless, Craig is looking like a long shot in the June 24 GOP primary.

He has struggled to raise the money needed for a statewide race, failing to qualify for public financing despite months of trying. He has taken aggressively conservative stands in the campaign, but there's little evidence that he's dispelled concerns on the right that he's a closet moderate. In two televised debates, he has passed on opportunities to raise questions about the front-runner, former Ehrlich administration official Larry Hogan.

A Baltimore Sun poll published Sunday showed that Hogan led the Republican primary field by a margin of more than 2-1. Craig was the choice of just 12 percent of likely GOP voters. That left him tied with Charles County business executive Charles Lollar, a candidate on a shoestring budget who has never held public office.

Craig is approaching the final weeks of the campaign with a quiet confidence and an air of serenity.

"My father always said: Never let them see you sweat," Craig said. It's an ability he said he honed in stifling hot meetings in Havre de Grace city hall and has kept through his televised debates with Hogan, Lollar and Del. Ron George — none of whom can match Craig's experience in public office.

While Craig has shown what he calls a "moderate temperament" through his career, he is offering voters a radical departure from Maryland's recent past. He's proposing to eliminate the state's personal income tax over several years and says he'll make severe budget cuts to pay for that.

Unlike his rivals, he doesn't promise that he can do so painlessly or that education spending can be spared.

Craig has the demeanor of a congenial elder statesman when he talks policy in his restored, 175-year-old home in Havre de Grace, where he lives with his wife of 43 years, Melinda. But his message is confrontational.

He vows to take on the Democratic-controlled General Assembly, saying that he'll use the power of the governor's office to enforce spending cuts no matter how much legislators protest. He pledges to push into law his tax-cut plan, predicting that Democratic opposition will yield in a way it did not for the most recent Republican governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

"It's going to be very difficult for them to say, 'We're not going to reduce that tax,'" Craig said.

And if they refuse?

"We'll see that they have opponents. They'll regret it," he said.

Craig's program of change isn't limited to the budget. He says he'll spare rural Marylanders from the "flush tax" imposed during the Ehrlich administration for Chesapeake Bay cleanup programs. He's promising a rollback of environmental regulations, though he has backed off his call for repeal of Maryland's landmark law protecting critical areas surrounding the bay and its tributaries.

Craig expressed confidence that he can sell his program.

"My first name is David. Who did he beat? Goliath," he said.

There's reason for Craig's self-assurance. Throughout his career, he's taken on formidable foes and won. He recalled that when he got his start in Harford County, Democrats enjoyed a large registration advantage and his lifelong home of Havre de Grace was in the less-Republican part of the county. Nevertheless, he beat incumbent Democrats to win House and Senate seats.

Craig prides himself in running clean campaigns that do not make enemies of his political opponents.

"The first man I beat for City Council still has a sign in his yard for me," he said.

Craig has had experience with defeat as well. In 1998, he stepped down from the state Senate to run for county executive but lost decisively in the primary to Del. James M. Harkins.

His loss gave him six years to complete a career as an educator with the Harford public schools. When Harkins resigned as county executive to take a job with the state, the County Council chose Craig to complete the term. Craig embarked on a policy of tax cuts and lean budgets that won elections in 2006 and 2010, the latter with 80 percent of the vote.

Not everyone has been thrilled with his leadership, however.

Ryan Burbey, president of the Harford County teachers union, said Craig's fiscal policy has been an "absolute disaster" for the public schools. Because Craig wouldn't fund the school board's budget, Burbey said, teachers did not get raises called for in the union contract, leading to high turnover, low morale and increasing class sizes.

"If you were to extrapolate his policy to a statewide level, I believe we would just descend to the bottom of the education ranks," Burbey said.

But Craig's Republican allies in Harford say his time in the political arena has prepared him well for the governor's office.

"There's politics involved in being a governor. It's not just being the CEO of a company," said Del. Kathy Szeliga, the House minority whip. "He's proved himself that he can be good at those jobs that are steppingstone to being governor."

But Szeliga said Craig doesn't come across as a politician. "He's just a very likable guy. He's like the guy next door," she said.

So far, Craig has not been able to translate affability into campaign cash. As of May 20, the most recent reporting date, his campaign bank account stood at $144,000, far short of Hogan's $390,000.

Sauerbrey conceded that that has been a problem for the Craig campaign.

"I do know that David doesn't like to ask for money, and that is a problem when you're running for governor," she said.

Craig says he's good at making such calls, but not to strangers. "I'm not going to call someone and ask for $4,000 if they haven't met me," he said.

Todd Eberly, a St. Mary's College political science professor who has been tracking the GOP race, said the fundraising woes reflect a larger problem.

"The campaign organization he's put together for his run for governor leaves something to be desired," Eberly said.

Eberly said Craig came into the race with by far the most experience of any candidate for governor in either party. But Eberly said Craig's rightward turn has failed to attract hard-core conservatives while putting him in a bad position for the general election if he can win the primary.

"I don't know why they felt a need to abandon their centrist credentials and run right," Eberly said. "The Democratic nominee would just immediately point to him as being too far right and out of step."

Craig said he's running on what he believes, and it won't bother him if his campaign falls short.

"I know what I'll be doing if I don't win," he said. "I know what I'll be doing if I do win."

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

Tomorrow: Ron George

David R. Craig

Age: 64

Job: Harford County executive

Experience: Havre de Grace mayor; state delegate and senator; teacher and assistant principal, Harford schools

Education: B.A., Towson State University, M.A., Morgan State University

Home: Havre de Grace

Family: Married, 3 grown children

Running mate: Del. Jeannie Haddaway

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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