Howard County

Political notebook: GOP tax petition drive falters

A direct-mail appeal to 20,000 mostly Republican voters this weekend is Howard County Republicans' last chance to pull what has been a losing charter referendum petition drive out of a death spiral as time runs out.

With two weeks until the Aug. 9 deadline for collecting 10,000 valid signatures to place a charter amendment on the Nov. 2 ballot, petition drive chairman Ken Aldrich said he has fewer than 3,000 signatures. He needs about 15,000 overall to end up with enough valid signatures for the Taxpayer Protection Initiative. Republicans want the charter to require a four-vote County Council majority to authorize any general tax increases, instead of a simple majority of three votes.

But County Councilman Greg Fox and other party officials have stepped in to help pay for and organize a direct-mail appeal.

At this time six years ago, Howard Republicans and tax protesters had conceded defeat in trying to get enough signatures for the same charter revision.

That failed effort came one year after then-County Executive James N. Robey had pushed through a 30 percent income tax increase.

This year, with Republicans predicting that Democrats are again intent on raising taxes in 2011, an identical charter-revision campaign seems again headed for failure.

Democrats point to Money magazine's recent choice of Columbia/Ellicott City as the second-best place to live in the nation and the county's AAA bond rating as evidence that they've done a good, prudent job running the county despite the recession. Several said the charter amendment effort is a simple election-year political gimmick, which Republicans hotly deny.

"I think it's a political ploy. They're doing it for the political value," said County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat.

Democratic Party Chairman Michael C.A. McPherson agreed. "We have excellent governance and a majority of the taxpayers understand this," he said.

In the sun-baked heat on July 16, a frustrated Aldrich and a small cadre of volunteers stood on the parking lot of what used to be Miller Bros. Ford on U.S. 40 in Ellicott City, trying to draw motorists to a "drive-through" signing event with little success.

"The only way we're going to make it is with a large mailing," Aldrich said after watching a handful of motorists drive in and sign the petitions in the first 45 minutes.

"People are still fat, dumb and happy. They're couch potatoes, observers," he said with disgust. "I'm just so frustrated."

Aldrich and Republicans insist that voters are outraged by the prospect of any tax increase. He blamed the stalled petition drive on recent heat, a lack of volunteers, the lack of places that will allow people to collect the names, election board delays and Republican candidates focused more on their campaigns than on the charter effort.

Aldrich complained that he's been ejected from grocery stores, shopping centers, the Columbia Festival of the Arts and other outdoor venues.

At a small fundraiser last Sunday for Trent Kittleman, the GOP candidate for county executive, she and other Republicans insisted that the difficulties are not because of the public's lack of interest or its satisfaction with what Democrats are doing.

"It's just hard to get signatures," Kittleman said. "It's not because people are not interested."

Her stepson, the Senate minority leader, agreed.

"We know they will raise our taxes," state Sen. Allan H. Kittleman told the 30 or so people gathered at his stepmother's house in West Friendship. "The people will sign it if we ask them. If it gets on the ballot, it will pass with flying colors."

But not even all Republicans want that. Charles C. Feaga, a 14-year Republican county councilman who attended the event, said he won't sign and doesn't think a charter change is a good idea, though he's strongly opposed to higher taxes.

Charles I. Ecker, the Republican former two-term county executive, who was not at the Kittleman affair but became honorary chairman of her campaign last week, agreed with Feaga.

"I don't like a tax increase, but sometimes it's necessary," he said, recalling that when he was elected in the midst of the 1991 recession, he had to raise property taxes. He appointed a committee to examine the issue before proposing the tax increase, which is how he thinks it should be done, he said.

Schooled in trademarks

The flashy red postcard/invitation to former University of Maryland football player Kyle Lorton's political fundraiser July 15 at Savage Mill featuring Terps football coach Ralph Friedgen attracted about 60 people, but neither his alma mater nor his rival, incumbent state Sen. James N. Robey, were amused.

Novice candidate Lorton wore a bright red polo shirt with the word "Terps" stitched into it and even donned a Terps football helmet to demonstrate his determination to beat his Republican primary rival, Jody Venkatesan, and then Robey, the Democrat who represents District 13.

But he'd mailed an invitation to Janet Robey, the senator's wife, and worse, he used the registered trademark of the University of Maryland athletic program on the postcard/invitations without permission.

Robey said others in his Elkridge condo building also received invitations, and he felt the logo made it seem that the public university is backing the Republican.

"I attended [University of Maryland's] University College, but they're not supporting my candidacy," Robey said. "For someone who sits on the Budget and Tax Committee that decides the budget for that institution, to see them endorse a candidate who is running against me is very troublesome," he said. Robey called it "poor judgment" on Lorton's part.

Lorton said he never gave the issue a thought in designing the card. "We just used the Maryland logo," he said, symbolizing his continuing ties with Maryland football. Lorton played center from 1976 to 1980, and met Friedgen this year at a football program-sponsored golf tournament. "Frankly, it never occurred to me" that using the trademark might be wrong, said Lorton, now North and South American sales director for W.R. Grace & Co. in Columbia.

It was wrong, however, according to Millree Williams, communications director for the university.

"As a public institution, we are nonpartisan," Williams said. Using the symbol on a political ad and on Lorton's campaign website "is an infringement on our trademark." He said the university would ask Lorton and Friedgen to take the symbol off any campaign websites and not use it again, though both men said they had not been contacted by the night of the event.

"I've been trying to tell Kyle," Friedgen said. "I deal with all that bureaucracy all the time."

Gloria Friedgen, the coach's wife, said they wanted to support Lorton, however. "We're proud of our football players who do great things," she said.

Lorton, 51, of Highland, said he has spent his working life in the petrochemical business, traveling the world until settling in Howard County a decade ago with his wife, Carol, and two children.

His political priorities are similar to other Republicans this year: smaller government, reducing "one-party rule" in Annapolis and creating a more "business-friendly" climate in Maryland.

"Our liberties and freedoms are under assault from an encroaching government," he said. Robey, he said, raised the county income tax rate 30 percent while he was the county executive and voted for the sales tax increase in 2007.

Lorton then donned the Maryland helmet and recited the words to a popular rock song about sports. "Put me in, coach!" he said to applause and cheers from his supporters.