Democrat Ken Ulman, dressed in Lucky jeans and a polo shirt, strode to the entrance of Robinson Nature Center, excited to give a tour of one of his favorite accomplishments as Howard County executive.
"This is really what I get giddy about," said Ulman, 40. "I wanted it to have a 'wow' factor, right when you walk in."
Ulman's eight-year tenure has been marked by exuberance and a hands-on approach to guiding the county where he's lived for all but a few years of his life. Now he's hoping to become Maryland's lieutenant governor on Anthony G. Brown's ticket — a position that for the first time would put the ambitious and indefatigable Ulman in the No. 2 position.
When he was elected in 2006, Ulman was the youngest county executive in Howard County history. Four years before that, he won his first seat in public office at 28. His oldest daughter, Maddie, was just weeks old when the young lawyer announced his run for County Council. His youngest, Lily, was born a few months before he became county executive.
After a lifetime in Howard County, Ulman runs into familiar faces everywhere he goes. His former classmates now help run the suburban county's major institutions. Maddie, as a young child accustomed to her dad's gregarious ways, used to shake hands with strangers in line at the local Giant.
"I think she thought everybody did that, because I did that at grocery stores since I was running for office," Ulman said.
Ulman is the oldest of Diana and Lou Ulman's two sons, and one of the first babies born at Howard County General Hospital.
Ulman's father was a prominent lawyer who, for years, served as chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission. His sons attended Howard County public schools. Ken Ulman says the impetus for action was instilled in them at an early age, and he knew he was interested in politics by the time he went to college.
"When you get elected early, people think, 'Oh, your mom and dad must have been in Congress,' " Ulman said. "My parents were just interested, active citizens. My folks really taught my brother and I that you can solve problems and make a difference in the world."
Ulman was a University of Maryland student majoring in government when he met his future wife, Jaki. He was a legislator in the student government association; she was a treasurer. Ulman still beams recalling that Jaki oversaw a million-dollar budget as a college student.
His junior year, Ulman got what he considers a pivotal break: an internship in the Clinton White House. Every morning, he walked from his fraternity house in College Park to take the Metro into Washington. "My friends were coming back in the morning as I was walking out in a suit," Ulman said.
At the White House, he tracked politics and how state-level activists supported the administration. He quit school early to travel the country campaigning for Bill Clinton's re-election. At 22, he was the Wyoming field director for the campaign.
When he returned to Maryland, Ulman ran into one of his father's friends and former law partners, John T. Willis, then secretary of state in Gov. Parris N. Glendening's administration.
"I figured, a smart young guy like that, we could find a place for him," said Willis, who now works at the University of Baltimore. "He's responsive, he doesn't let grass grow under his feet. He's perceptive."
Ulman, who was attending Georgetown University Law Center at night, quickly climbed up the ranks. Starting as a worker in the state's charities enforcement division, he became Glendening's executive director at the Board of Public Works, a job that put Ulman's office within shouting distance of the governor.
During his tenure in Howard County government, Ulman has pushed polices that Republican critics contend are too expensive and go too far in telling citizens how to live their lives.
"I would describe Ken as trying to create a liberal utopia in Howard County," said Joe Cluster, chair of the Maryland Republican Party.
"It can't be paid for. All these things cost money," Cluster said. "They want you to live by a certain set of rules and values."
Ulman pushed through a ban on the sale of sugary drinks at county offices and co-sponsored one of the state's first public smoking bans. He created a county-level subsidy to help people pay for health insurance, long before the Affordable Care Act did that on a national level. He championed several environmentally friendly projects, including a weekly food scrap pickup service and a partnership with Fort Meade that ensures much of the wastewater treated in Howard does not later flow into streams.
He fought to save the Merriweather Post Pavilion from redevelopment and oversaw the revitalization of downtown Columbia.
But few accomplishments delight Ulman more than the nature center. He insisted on having his own set of keys to the site while it was under construction and visited every weekend with his young daughters in tow, quizzing the construction crew about how it was being built.
"It drove the parks-and-rec guys nuts," Ulman said.
As Ulman reached the sixth year of his term, he began raising cash and touring the state talking to Democratic clubs — moves that suggested he was weighing a bid to be governor. Pundits considered him likely to run, and by early 2013 Ulman had amassed $2.1 million, a half-million dollars more than Brown had at the time.
He told The Baltimore Sun in a January 2013 interview that he was looking at the top job, but Ulman now says "it's a little overblown that I wanted to be governor. I wanted to continue to serve."
As he ran into Brown on the political circuit, Ulman says the pair became convinced they'd make a better team.
"We have very different styles," Ulman said. "He's a very disciplined, military man, and I'm the one who talks too much."
He said Brown, the current lieutenant governor, has made clear he would have significant responsibilities: improving the state's business climate, fostering economic development and pushing for innovation.
"We both agreed: I'm not the guy to pick if I'm doing ceremonial things only," Ulman said. "I like getting things done."
For a man who loves responsibility, challenges and diving into the details, can the office of lieutenant governor offer enough?
Ulman's eyes sparkle and he breaks into a big toothy grin before he answers.
"It better," he said.