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Political Notebook: Howard's elected officials head overseas

Patching potholes and balancing Howard County's or Maryland's budget may seem far removed from visits to foreign and exotic places, but several local elected officials traveled overseas this spring, visiting places as diverse as Israel, Turkey, northern Europe and Asia.

County Executive Ken Ulman, a Democrat, spent a week in Israel, and Del. Gail Bates, a Republican, made a similar trip to Turkey, both invited and financed, at least in part, by local groups with ties to those countries interested in building good relations with American officials. Del. Guy Guzzone, a Democrat, is spending a month at his own expense visiting Korea, China and India, and Del. Elizabeth Bobo, who says she likes to travel to experience other cultures, vacationed in Berlin, Dresden and Prague.

Bates, like Democratic Sen. James N. Robey before her, said she had attended a reception in Annapolis held this year on February 23 by two local Turkish American groups called the Maryland Turkish American Inhabitants, and the Mid-Atlantic Federation of Turkic American Associations. They are trying to promote the country of their ancestors as a modernizing, forward-looking society, and the Howard officials agreed to travel there with a few other elected officials to learn more.

"It was just fabulous. They were incredibly gracious," Bates said, adding that she enjoyed the sightseeing, but also meetings with local Turkish officials and especially being invited into Turkish homes for dinner and conversation. Bates said she paid her own air fare, and was provided accommodations and food, plus interior travel in Turkey by the sponsors.

The small group, which Bates said included five Maryland legislators and Maryland Secretary of State John P. McDonough, stayed in Istanbul; Izmir, on the Aegean coast; Ankara, the capital; and Kocaeli, an industrial city near Istanbul. The impression she took away was of an increasingly modern country striving to improve itself.

Robey, who had taken a similar trip within the past several years, had also visited Turkey years earlier. He too said that meeting Turkish families in their homes made a big impression. "They want the same things we want: freedom, a good education and a better quality of life — and less traffic congestion," he recalled. A shopkeeper he met commuted on three buses and still walked over a mile each way daily to get to work and back. Apartments were "very nice, but small" by American standards, which gave him a different perspective on what Americans expect compared to people elsewhere in the world, he said.

Ulman is the latest of hundreds of young American leaders who have taken similar trips over the years arranged by local Jewish organizations to win friends and show off their side of Israel's story. The Baltimore-based Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation paid the executive's way, Ulman said, and it's a trip — his first to Israel — that he won't soon forget.

"It was one of the most exhausting trips I've ever had in my life," Ulman said, with activities jammed into every day starting at 6 a.m. for a whirlwind of visits to local officials, biblical sites, local businesses, and sensitive borders. One thing that he knew but that still greatly impressed him while there was how small a country Israel really is.

"It's pretty staggering to realize how close everything is," Ulman said. Gaza, he realized, is as close to Jerusalem as Howard County is to Bethesda. He also met and spoke with the Arab mayor of a West Bank town.

He was there when President Barack Obama made his heavily criticized speech suggesting that the 1967 borders of Israel, subject to land swaps on both sides, should be the starting point for an ultimate peace agreement, and visited the northern border with Syria during the time when border demonstrations that resulted in violence were taking place.

The news media's penchant for reducing issues to short sentences and sound bites obscured the nuances of the president's intentions, Ulman said, adding that "I think he ought to make more clear to our partners in Israel that whatever happens, he won't sacrifice Israel's security."

Guzzone headed in the opposite direction, saying before he left June 4 that he'd been talking about a Far Eastern trip for years, partly because of the fast-growing Asian-American population in Howard County. County residents, like Sue Song, the longtime leader of the county's Korean community, and founders of the local Chinese American Language School have encouraged the visit. Guzzone also met the Maryland business trade mission headed by Gov. Martin O'Malley in Korea while he was there, he said, and then moved on to China, with India last on the itinerary.

"This is the first time I've really been overseas," Guzzone said via telephone June 17, while in China. He has visited Chinese colleges and schools, met officials and academics and made business contacts with people interested in Maryland and Howard County. He spent a week in Korea, about 11 days in China and then moved to India for the last week of the journey. Song met him in Korea, he said. "It's been incredible, really."

Bobo said she and her husband, former County Council member Lloyd Knowles, love to travel. They were very impressed with the "grand boulevards, great museums and magnificent modern architecture" in East Berlin, and said the Holocaust memorial located in front of the U.S. Embassy was the most moving she's ever seen.

They also visited a former Wilde Lake High student and one-time intern in Bobo's legislative office as well, but she said the real lure of travel for her is "letting myself be absorbed in wherever we are." She tries to find a novel set in whatever country she is traveling, she said, to boost the effect.

Her big regret: never having learned a second language.

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