On a steamy Saturday afternoon in July, Democrats at a fundraiser for incumbent Del. Frank S. Turner welcomed Howard County Executive Ken Ulman to the event at the high-rise Waterside Condominium in Columbia.
As Ulman mingled and spoke to the group on a pool patio, his county police driver/bodyguard waited nearby, with an unmarked county patrol car parked outside.
Some might not take issue with a need for security for the county's top elected official in a turbulent age when irrational behavior can erupt any time, but how far should that protection go? President Barack Obama and Governor Martin O'Malley, both Democrats, have security all day every day, but is that needed for a county executive? Officials in Baltimore City, Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties think it is, whether at official county functions or not.
In Prince George's and Montgomery counties, the executives often use police or private security, but not always. Ulman sometimes drives himself. Harford Executive David Craig drives himself, spokesman Bob Thomas said, though Thomas said there have been sporadic threats made against him.
Ulman, a Democrat who succeeded former Police Chief James N. Robey, is the first Howard executive to regularly use a police driver and car.
Ulman often uses his police driver and vehicle to attend non-government events — like July 6 when he filed for re-election, and the night of July 14 when he attended the Columbia Democratic Club endorsement meeting at Jeffers Hill. As far back as November 2008, Ulman used a police driver when he attended the big Democratic election victory rally in Columbia to celebrate Barack Obama's victory in the presidential election.
Ulman's also been seen with security at seemingly recreational outings, like River Hill High School football games last fall. This has raised questions for some citizens who have seen him.
"I just found it curious that he found the need for that [security] in a hometown kind of atmosphere. I was taken aback," said Marlene Rusenko, of Clarksville, who also attended River Hill games.
Ulman has consistently refused to publicly discuss specifics about the practice or say if there have been specific threats made against him. Tuesday he continued that policy.
"The Police Department handles all security matters," he said.
Police Chief William McMahon explained it this way:
"He's the county executive, and he's the county executive all the time. Typical of elected officials today, he is busy all day," McMahon said, adding that sometimes government events and private events occur in close time or distance proximity.
McMahon wouldn't comment directly on whether Ulman has received threats, for fear, he said, of encouraging anyone seeking attention, but "there are things we became aware of that reinforce for me the need to have security with him." There is no specific county rule governing the situation.
Greg Fox, the County Council's only Republican, has repeatedly questioned Ulman's personal use of police resources, often during council budget deliberations.
"There are plenty of cases where we're at events and the officer is in the car with the engine running while the executive is at the event," Fox said. In those instances, Fox contends, the officer is too far from Ulman to provide security and is merely a driver, a job the executive could get other staff members to do.
Trent Kittleman, the Republican candidate for county executive, is also critical of Ulman, a Democrat running for re-election.
"My general sense is there is no excuse whatsoever for [using a sworn county officer] at nongovernmental events," she said. If elected, Kittleman said, she would not use that kind of security "unless someone's out there with a distinct threat on my life. It just sets a bad tone."
Ulman also has a county-owned Ford Escape Hybrid at his personal disposal, and he's put 17,300 miles on it in nearly four years. Overtime pay for the various officers who provide his protection totaled $12,352 this year through July 4, on a track to roughly equal the $24,056 spent in 2009. The county spent $21,774 in 2007 and $14,328 in 2008, county police said. Fox's attempts to broach the issue have typically been ignored by other council members.
Ryan O'Donnell, executive director of Common Cause, Maryland, did not criticize it either, but did offer some advice.
"Public officials ought to be up front about what public dollars are spent on. If there is a good justification for a security detail in all situations, the people of Howard County will understand. It's when they are left in the dark that taxpayers can be a little unforgiving."
Ehrlich team talks business
Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s campaign is continuing to concentrate on Howard County, with one visit from each of the ticket's top two figures over the last two weeks.
Wednesday evening, lieutenant governor hopeful Mary Kane visited Houlihan's restaurant at the Gateway Overlook shopping center to join about 80 enthusiastic local Republicans who were recruiting more campaign volunteers. On July 22, Ehrlich himself stopped at the Crab Shanty on U.S. 40 in Ellicott City to push his small business theme with a group of about 40 Howard County business owners.
Kane said she was impressed with the numbers and excitement among those who packed a side room at Houlihan's, which has hosted several events for Republicans this year. Kane, who started her political career on Capitol Hill working for former U.S. Sen. Joe Biden, a Delaware Democrat who is now vice president, was pushing the same "change" mantra used by Biden and President Barack Obama in 2008.
"When you see gatherings like this tonight … this is incredible … when we have crowds like this, in August," she continued, trailing off.
Ehrlich's business discussion the previous week was more sedate.
Although he often predicts victory, Ehrlich also pleads for all the help he can get, given Maryland's history of electing Democrats.
"There's no such thing as a cocky Maryland Republican," he said, adding, "We do expect to win this race."
"I'm going to need your help, every lawyer and accountant," Ehrlich said to the business group.
Ehrlich and state Senate Minority Leader Allan H. Kittleman told the attendees that the business community only hurts itself by giving campaign contributions to Democrats.
Democrats, Ehrlich said, feel Maryland is insulated from the woes of private business by the huge infusion of federal defense jobs, so they pay less attention to business problems.
"If you can't educate them, beat them," Ehrlich urged. "They vote against job creation and they get re-elected. They shouldn't be elected."
Kittleman said the ruling Democrats were emboldened by financial support from business.
"You send the wrong message if you support someone who punishes you," he said. Kittleman said Democrats "laugh at you. They do," for giving them money while they, in his view, vote against business interests.
But Paul Skalny, a lawyer, said all legislators do what they feel they must to be re-elected, and business owners must play the game as it is.
"For a small business, the game is survival," he said.
"Why play in a sandbox if you always get sand thrown at you? Why settle for crumbs?" the former governor said.
As if in answer, Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley announced later that day that he had convened a business roundtable discussion in Baltimore between business leaders and government officials "to discuss challenges and opportunities for lending to small businesses in Maryland."
"We need small business to create jobs to continue the momentum of the economic recovery," O'Malley said in a prepared statement. He talked about his Small Business Recovery Program, launched last year to help businesses get access to credit, and said, "Small and family-owned businesses are the backbone of our economy." But that was far from the story Ehrlich was spinning.
"I don't want to depress everybody here. I want you angry, not depressed," Ehrlich said a bit later after banker and former Columbia Association board member Miles Coffman asked about the growing burden of state workers' pensions.