In a little less than two years, the make up of the Howard County Council will change as at least four term-limited legislators leave the legislative body, a turnover that has local Democrats and Republicans preparing for competitive races throughout the Democrat-majority county.
As rumor mills churn with dozens of candidates mulling the possibility of vying for vacant seats, only one candidate has officially launched his campaign ahead of the February filing deadline next year. Elkridge Democrat Opel Jones is running for the District 2 seat, an area that covers east Columbia and parts of Jessup, Elkridge and Ellicott City. The seat has been held by current Councilman Calvin Ball, a Columbia Democrat, since 2006.
For Jones, who has a background in academic and math and is involved in the local political scene as second vice president of the Howard County Democratic Central Committee, the launch of his campaign is hardly early.
A microcosm of the national immigration debate flared in Howard County's packed government chambers Tuesday night as more than 500 community members staked a divided stand on a bill that would label Howard County as a "sanctuary" for undocumented immigrants.
At a private launch party intentionally timed with former President Barack Obama's last day in office, Jones, an African American and lifetime member of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, said he wanted to put rumors to rest.
"I want people to know that not only am I running, but that this is serious. We're not just going to talk about this and have rumors float for about a year," Jones, 39, said.
Vernon Gray, a Democratic community fixture who became the first African American to serve on the Howard County Council in 1982, called Jones "the man of the hour" at Jones's launch party last week. "Opel is the change that we seek," Gray said.
Jones is pursuing a doctorate in math at Howard University after receiving bachelor's and master's degrees in the same subject. After being appointed by former Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, Jones serves on the county's Human Rights Commission, an 11-member body established in 1969 to review human rights issues and file complaints concerning patterns of discrimination.
His campaign is staked on three broad principles: education, public safety and community vibrancy. The Democrat said he is committed to ensuring village centers in Columbia like Long Reach, which is struggling with low vacancy rates, are revitalized. Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman, a Republican, is courting development plans from developers for the blighted village center.
"Many people in District 2 feel the areas close to Route 1 are like the dumping ground for the county. Some people are also concerned about public safety around the village centers and being able to go out at night," Jones said. "This is all based on word-of-mouth and I look forward to finding out more of the issues from the people."
Local lawmakers began early discussions Monday to set up a public funding for campaigns after voters narrowly passed a ballot measure in November that allows candidates running for county council and county executive races to opt-in for public financing.
"In a very blue county, sometimes we rest on our laurels, knowing that unless it's a very red district, that we'll be ok," he said.
No other candidates have publicly launched their campaigns, but plenty are considering running. The silence is unusual ahead of the local race, said David Yungmann, a local county Republican who is seriously considering a run for District 5, a seat held by current Councilman Greg Fox, also a Republican.
"You'd think people would have come forward officially by now. Names are circulating, but no one is out campaigning," Yungmann said.
In a politician environment where local candidates must gin up campaign dollars and endorsements far ahead of filing deadlines, the 2018 race is either a world away — or happened yesterday.
Byron Macfarlane, the county's Register of Wills, a local elected office, says he's seriously considering a run for District 4, an area that covers west Columbia and has been represented by current Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a Democrat, since 2006. McFarlane expects to announce his decision next month.
"After losing the presidential election, local Democrats are looking for an outlet for our energy, and naturally, that's going to lead us to start looking forward to 2018," McFarlane said. "It's not too early."
Christiana Rigby, a Columbia Democrat who served on the Oakland Mills Village Board and is co-founder of a local club for Democratic women, is also weighing her options for District 3, which covers parts of Columbia, North Laurel, Savage and Jessup and has been represented by Democrat Councilwoman Jen Terrasa..
Like other local legislators, Fox hasn't made a decision about his political future.
"I'll be prepared for whatever the future has to hold, but it doesn't necessary have to involve me being in elected office," Fox said.
Terrasa, who is also bowing out of the council because of term limits, also said "it's too early" to make a decision but she has political ambitions, including but not limited to a seat in the General Assembly.
Deep divides continued to surface Wednesday night as residents delivered impassioned testimony before the Howard County Council on a bill proposed by two local Democrats that could make the county a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants.
Similarly, Howard County Council Chairman Jon Weinstein, a Democrat who narrowly won a contentious race in 2014, said he hasn't finalized if he'll run again for council in 2018.
But the Ellicott City businessman, who in 2014 received 51 percent of the vote against Republican Kevin Schmidt, said he hopes to be on the ballot "in some form or another." Weinstein serves in District 1, which covers parts of Ellicott City and Elkridge and is one of the only true swing councilmanic districts.
In 2006, Courtney Watson, Terrasa, Fox and Sigaty were part of a new crop of local legislators who took office without having served on the council before. Council members are limited to three terms, a limit voters approved in 1992.