Courtney Watson and Allan Kittleman are children of Howard County.
In a hard-fought campaign season that's run the gamut of issues over the past year, it's a core fact that keeps each candidate grounded.
Follow Watson or Kittleman to just about any spot in the county, and they can share a childhood memory of the place: learning to swim at Running Brook pool, ice skating on Lake Kittamaqundi, buying baseball trading cards at the Wilde Lake pharmacy.
"Howard County – all of it – is my hometown," Watson told supporters when she announced her candidacy for county executive last fall.
Kittleman made his own announcement "with deep respect and love for the community I have called my home for over 50 years."
The race for Howard County executive this year is generally acknowledged to be one of the closest races in the county in years. Howard, a diverse community of suburbs nestled between Baltimore and Washington that has retained a rural, more conservative west, is less reliably blue across the board than its neighbors in Baltimore City, Prince George's County or Montgomery County. Howard currently has three Republicans in its 11-member Annapolis delegation.
Still, the county has only elected one Republican executive in its history: Chuck Ecker, who served two terms in the 1990s, edged out Democratic incumbent Liz Bobo by just 421 votes amid a wave of anti-incumbent backlash in 1990.
In finding a replacement for current County Executive Ken Ulman, who has his eye on Annapolis this November as running mate for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Anthony Brown, Howard is not wanting for bona fides or local credibility when it comes to the two candidates vying for the county's top seat.
Kittleman, 56, has been the state senator representing Ellicott City and western Howard County since 2004, when he assumed the seat after the death of his father, Bob Kittleman, a longtime county politician. Before that, the Republican sat on the County Council for six years.
Watson, 52, has her own political pedigree. Her father, Edward Cochran, was Howard's second county executive, serving from 1974 to 1978. Watson, a Democrat, got her civic start as a school construction activist, served on the Board of Education from 2002 to 2006, and is now rounding out her second term on the County Council, where she represents Ellicott City, Elkridge and Hanover.
On paper, Howard County's executive candidates are experienced, involved and, some have said, similar in the centrist tone each has adopted over the course of his or her political career.
With several socially progressive votes on bills to decriminalize marijuana, repeal the death penalty and allow same-sex marriage in Maryland – a decision that led him to renounce his minority leadership position among Senate Republicans – Kittleman has developed a reputation as a social libertarian, which he balances with a fiscal conservatism that values keeping taxes and regulations low.
Watson, meanwhile, has embraced the Democratic ideal of empowering government to improve social ills and has championed full funding for school construction and a new library for the Elkridge community, but she has also proven to be an independent thinker on the council who is concerned with fiscal responsibility. A notable example is her 2010 vote to halve funding for Healthy Howard, a county program created to provide health care services for the uninsured, because she felt it wasn't helping enough people for the cost.
"They're more alike than different," observed Chris Merdon, the county's technology chief, Kittleman's former colleague on the council and the Republican candidate for county executive in 2006, when Ulman claimed his first victory. "Both care deeply about the community, particularly in education and land-use. They both have great leadership qualities."
For a candidate trying to win a race, the differences become more important than the similarities. Sussing out the distinctions between Watson and Kittleman has become an important theme for each campaign; the subject of TV ads, social media blasts and well-phrased, oft-repeated mission statements.
Watson's goes something like this: Howard County, under Democratic leadership, has thrived, and now is not the time to reverse course.
She's been running a campaign based on the county's accolades: the top schools, the number one library system in North America, the well-maintained parks system and the attention from national magazines such as Money, which recently ranked two Howard cities in tandem, Columbia and Ellicott City, as the sixth best place to live in 2014.
"The county is on an upward trajectory, and I've been part of all of those decisions — via Columbia downtown redevelopment, funding the school system, making sure we fund and have added police officers — and we need to keep that progress moving," she said recently. "I think I have shown that I can continue the progress, and I think my friend from Annapolis has not been part of that and really would be, I think, on a long learning curve."
Kittleman, for his part, sees room for improvement.
"I don't see myself as a continuity candidate," he said when asked how he differed from Watson. "I see myself as someone who understands how great we have things in Howard County… but I'm also a candidate who believes that number one is not good enough, and that we need to continue to improve, and that we do have challenges. I think there are some who would prefer just to talk about how wonderful things are and not look at some of the things behind the curtain."
Ask each candidate how they differ, and they can present a bullet-point list of the ways, honed over the course of what most say is a neck-and-neck race.
Watson said she finds it "frustrating" that people would think the two are similar candidates. Her campaign has turned its focus on Kittleman's record on the council and in the state Senate, where Watson says he "has been a conservative, Republican vote."
A core issue for the Democrat is funding, and she has highlighted her opponent's votes against the state budget in Annapolis as well as an alternative budget he and Merdon proposed for fiscal year 2004 that would have cut then-County Executive Jim Robey's schools budget by $5 million, cut library funding by $550,000 and would have removed funds for a new public safety training center.
She's also called attention to his record on guns, which includes a vote against the Firearm Safety Act of 2013, legislation that made Maryland's gun laws some of the strictest in the nation.
Kittleman has defended his record, arguing that he proposed spending cuts at a time when the county was raising its piggyback tax to the highest possible limit. As for the state budget votes, he points out that Maryland does not separate education funding from the general budget.
He has criticized Watson and the county for what he sees as inaction on flooding and parking issues in Ellicott City, on fixing the achievement gap in county schools and on broadening mental health services available to Howard residents.
"My concern is I think we're more of a reactionary county than we are a proactive county," he said. "I think the issue is one of action; one of direction and energy vs. continuity and complacency."
He also points to the candidates' differing views on the stormwater fee, otherwise known as the rain tax, and on a 2012 executive order from Ulman banning sugary drinks and limiting the percentage of high-calorie snacks in county vending machines and at events on county property: Watson has supported both, while Kittleman does not.
Watson said an important consideration for voters should be effectiveness. She points to endorsements from multiple groups – the teachers, fire and police unions, as well as the African American Coalition of Howard County, Sierra Club and NARAL Pro-Choice – to prove that she's earned the community's trust.
"Going forward as county executive, I think you really have to look at each one of us and how we've been able to be effective, and I have a very close working relationship with the existing County Council, the majority of whom will be on the County Council for the next executive," she said. Two councilmembers, Jen Terrasa and Mary Kay Sigaty, don't have challengers this November, while councilmembers Ball and Greg Fox each have an opponent; Watson's seat will be filled by a newcomer.
"My concern is that [Kittleman] will not be able to get anything done with the existing County Council, because he has not proven that he's been able to get anything done in Annapolis," she said, pointing to the senator's difficulty getting the bills he has sponsored passed by the General Assembly.
Kittleman says that's due to one-party rule in the State House. He points to successes such as Grace's Law, an anti-cyberbullying initiative he sponsored and helped pass in the Senate, as well as endorsements by Democratic colleagues Sen. Bobby Zirkin, of Baltimore County, and Sen. Lisa Gladden, of Baltimore City, as well as the Rev. Douglas Sands, a Democrat and former Howard County NAACP president, as evidence that he has tried to work across the aisle.
In Howard, where the ratio of registered Democrats to Republicans is 1.6 to 1, the nagging issue of party is a factor Kittleman, especially, can't ignore.
He's branded himself a "proven independent leader" on campaign material and has emphasized support from local Democrats and Independents.
Roger Caplan, a veteran political observer and advisor for council Democrat Calvin Ball's campaign this year, said victory, ultimately, is a "very simple game."
"As I say with every election, it's [about] who gets their voters to the polls, especially in an off-year," he said.
While Caplan's impression of Howard voters is that they are generally content with the state of affairs in the county, Merdon said he felt an anti-incumbent sentiment brewing statewide.
Even so, the tech chief added, "I've run that race [for county executive], and the numbers are difficult to overcome for a Republican. Allan is an excellent candidate, but with 40,000 more Democrats than Republicans, it's an uphill battle."
First 100 days
Whoever makes it to office, they will already have their first 100 days planned out. Both candidates have a list of priorities to enact early in their administration.
Watson's include eliminating transit fares for seniors 65 and older; convening workgroups to review the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance and the revitalization of the Village of Oakland Mills in Columbia; beginning the public process for the revitalization of the Long Reach village; and appointing Howard deputy fire chief John Butler as the county's first African American fire chief if Chief Bill Goddard retires.
Kittleman also expects to have to replace department heads in the inevitable reshuffling of a new administration. He said he would focus on finding leaders who will "treat every citizen with respect" and "not hide things." Among them would be the chief of a new department, the Department of Aging, which Kittleman plans to create out of the Office of Aging if he's elected. He also plans to implement a performance review system, called HoCo Stat, as soon as he takes office.
Both say they are driven by a desire to keep their hometown great, and to make it greater. And, two weeks from election day, each has packaged their mission statement in a message that gets right to the point.
Watson sums up her views this way: "Howard County is a fantastic place to live, and we together have made it that way in the last 10 years. We need to continue that."
And as for Kittleman: "I want freedom for everybody. I want freedom for you in the boardroom, and I want freedom for you in the bedroom."
"I think what we have in Howard County is probably one of the most competitive races that I can remember," Caplan said. "You have the luxury of two people who were essentially raised, went to school here, who come from two distinguished backgrounds. But I think their philosophies on governing are different — and that's good; that's healthy."
Born: Olney on Oct. 20, 1958
Current location: West Friendship
Schools: Atholton Elementary School, Ellicott City and Hammond Middle Schools and Atholton High School
Degrees: B.A. political science, University of Maryland Baltimore County (1981); J.D. with honors, University of Maryland School of Law (1988)
Family: Wife, Robin, and four children
Family note: Late father, Bob Kittleman, was District 14B delegate (1983-2002) and District 9 state senator (2002-2004)
Current seat: District 9 state senator (since 2004 — took late father's seat)
Occupation: Attorney at Godwin Erlandson, MacLaughlin, Vernon & Daney LLC (since 2008)
In the Senate: Minority Whip (2007-2008), Minority Leader (2008-2011)
Senate committees (not inclusive): Finance committee (2007-present), Joint Committee on Workers' Compensation Benefit and Insurance Oversight (2007-present), Joint Committee on Children, Youth and Families (2008-2011), Spending Affordability Committee (2008-2011), Education, Health and Environmental Affairs committee (2004-2006), Maryland Rural Caucus (2005-present), Maryland Veterans Caucus (2005-present)
Previous positions (not inclusive): District 5 Howard County Council member (1998-2004), Partner at Herwig & Humphreys (1996-2003), Co-owner of Twin Knolls Title Co. (2006-2008)
Born: Clarksville on Sept. 8, 1962
Current location: Ellicott City
Schools: Atholton Elementary, Clarksville Middle, Atholton High School
Degrees: B.A. Loyola College of Maryland (1984); M.B.A. Loyola College of Maryland (1986)
Family: Husband Richard, three children
Family note: Father Ed Cochran was Howard County executive from 1974 to 1978
Current seat: District 1 County Council member (since 2006)
Occupation: Vice president of Rossmann-Hurt-Hoffman Inc., regional insurance company (since 1992)
On the council: Council chair (2007-2008 and 2009-2010), Liquor Board chair (2009-2010), Zoning Board chair (2010-2011; 2012-present)
Previous positions: School Board member, 2002-2006 (chair for two years, 2003-2005)
County committees: Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance Committee, Ellicott City Master Plan Steering Committee, Economic Development Authority Strategic Plan Committee, Spending and Bond Affordability Committee
Other organization: President of the Women of the Maryland Association of Counties (2010-2013)