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Kittleman wins tight Howard County executive race

Riding a wave of Republican victories nationwide, state Sen. Allan Kittleman defeated County Council member Courtney Watson Tuesday in the race for Howard County executive.

The news came in the late-night hours of Nov. 4.

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To a room full of giddy supporters, County Council member Greg Fox made the announcement: With all precincts reporting, Kittleman had claimed 51 percent of the votes to Watson's 49 percent.

Then, to boisterous applause and cheering, Kittleman took the microphone.

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"This is about Howard County, and we really wanted to make sure that people knew that Howard County deserves to have a government that was working for them," he told the crowd.

"And that's what this government is going to do. We're going to be open, we're going to be transparent, we're going to make sure everybody's included," Kittleman said. "We're going to do what's best for the people and not worry about who the elected officials are. It's going to be all about you, all the time."

With the win, Kittleman becomes only the second Republican county executive in Howard's history. The first, Chuck Ecker, won a slim victory in 1990 when he edged out Democratic incumbent Liz Bobo by 421 votes, also amid a national atmosphere of anti-incumbent sentiment.

Kittleman's victory was more comfortable, though close. As of early Wednesday morning, he led Watson by some 2,700 votes.

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According to an election board official, 3,099 absentee ballots had yet to be counted.

Watson congratulated Kittleman on the victory.

"I told him that I would certainly do what I can to help him be successful and help Howard County move forward," Watson said, adding that "it was a tough year, it was a tough climate for Democrats."

Watson, 52, is a two-term Democratic County Councilmember from Ellicott City. Before she was elected to the council in 2006, she served one term on the school board. In addition to her council service, Watson works as the vice president of a regional insurance firm.

Kittleman, 56, has been a state senator representing the western county for the past decade. The Republican served six years on the County Council before he left his post to fill the Senate seat his father Bob Kittleman had occupied until his death in 2004. Kittleman also works as an attorney for Ellicott City-based law firm Godwin, Erlandson, Vernon & Daney.

In Howard County, where Democrats hold a registration advantage of 1.7 to 1, Republican county executive candidates face an upward battle at the polls. Kittleman made wooing Democrats and Independents a priority, labeling himself a "Proven Independent Leader" on campaign literature and highlighting several socially progressive votes during his time in the Senate, including votes in support of same-sex marriage, repeal of the death penalty and decriminalization of marijuana.

Watson's campaign, meanwhile, focused on a narrative of continuing what she saw as the county's success under Democratic County Executive Ken Ulman's administration.

But statewide and across the nation, voters showed weariness with Democratic rule Tuesday. In Maryland, governor-elect Larry Hogan and running mate Boyd Rutherford, of Columbia, beat Anthony Brown and Ulman, who was running for lieutenant governor on Brown's ticket.

To win in traditionally blue Maryland and Howard County, both Hogan and Kittleman had to convince Democrats and Independents to lend their support.

Sara Arditti, an Ellicott City art gallery owner who said she has been a Democrat all her life, was at the Republican watch party, wearing a mustard-colored Kittleman shirt.

She said she's been a Kittleman supporter "since Day 1.

"There's plenty of us disgusted Democrats that needed to see some changes happen," she said of the vibe in the county.

Republican party chairwoman Loretta Shields summed up the atmosphere of the night: "We are feeling good, really good," she said. "People in Maryland and people in Howard County are saying they want a change."

Reporters Luke Lavoie and Pamela Wood contributed to this story. 

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