Eight years ago, Robert L. Flanagan was one of the most powerful officials in state government, earning $151,262 for overseeing an agency with a $3.7 billion budget and more than 9,200 employees.
These days, as a lawyer with a family law practice, the former state transportation secretary is knocking on doors and waving signs in the hope of becoming one among 141 members of the House of Delegates.
Flanagan, 68, is the Republican nominee for a $45,207-a-year, part-time House seat in a Howard County subdistrict that centers on Ellicott City. He faces Democrat Thomas G. Coale, a 32-year-old lawyer and former member of the Columbia Association board, in what is expected to be one of the more fiercely contested House races in the state.
It is a contest that will give voters a clear choice between a Republican determined to reverse the state's budget policies and a Democrat with an intense focus on local issues. The two men say they're hearing different messages from voters.
Flanagan said people are telling him that Maryland's taxes and business climate are driving people away. "Retirees are running out of the state; people are planning their retirement out of state; business startups are electing to go out of state; job opportunities are going out of state," he said.
Coale said that's not what voters are telling him. He says they are more concerned about whether they can afford their children's tuition at state colleges and get home without an hourlong commute.
"I don't hear people quitting on Ellicott City. I don't hear people quitting on Maryland," Coale said
District 9B was crafted by the General Assembly's ruling Democrats and Gov. Martin O'Malley to give their party a shot at picking up a delegate's seat in what was a solidly Republican 9th District. In the June 24 primary, Democrats cast more than 3,300 votes for Coale and his opponent. Republicans cast 1,900 votes for Flanagan and a GOP rival.
Flanagan is hoping to return to a legislative chamber in which he served from 1987 to 2003, rising to the post of minority whip before being defeated in a bid to become minority leader. In the House, he established himself as one of the GOP's top budget experts and a biting critic of Democratic budget priorities.
After being elected governor in 2002, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. named Flanagan, a former House colleague, as transportation secretary. He spent four tumultuous years in the post, steering the long-stalled Intercounty Connector to federal approval but butting heads with lawmakers and local officials over a major reorganization of Baltimore's bus routes. He left that job in 2007 after Ehrlich's loss to O'Malley.
Coale, a former Republican who said he left a party dominated by "ideologues," panned the proposal. He said it's more important to help middle-class families educate their children.
"I don't think we can give blanket tax absolution just for pensions," he said. "You want to make a tax cut, where's the service cut?"
Coale contends that Ellicott City's current Republican lawmakers have done little to help its flood-prone downtown. He said Flanagan, too, would stress ideology over local concerns, pointing to his rival's position on the stormwater cleanup fees imposed in Howard and other large Maryland counties."
Flanagan has called for elimination of the fees, which he and other Republicans deride as the "rain tax."
Calling "rain tax" a childish term, Coale said the stormwater projects the fees pay for are not just important to cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay but are essential to controlling flooding in places such as Ellicott City. He said he'd change how the fees are applied but contended that repeal would hurt downtown residents and businesses.