Property taxes, growth concerns helped defeat area incumbents


Across the state, and particularly in the Baltimore region, voters' concerns about uncontrolled growth and higher taxes knocked out incumbents and catapulted some virtual unknowns to prominence in key primary races.

The fallout from Tuesday's primaries undoubtedly will be felt during the general election, although to what extent is still unclear.

In a move that helped define the political landscape before the primary, angry residents in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties launched revolts against rising property tax assessments, attempting to roll them back by petitioning to bring the issue to referendum.

In both cases, lower courts ruled the attempts unconstitutional, blocking referendums from appearing on November ballots. The Maryland Court of Appeals, however, is expected to hear arguments in both cases next week.

In the meantime, political camps across the region will assess the results of the primaries and seek to control the damage in the general election.

In Baltimore County, two incumbent council members fell to defeat in part, because of issues involving property taxes and growing congestion.

Dale T. Volz, the 7th District Democrat and first-term incumbent from Dundalk, was defeated by anti-tax candidate Don Mason, who has conducted a nearly decade-long crusade against rising assessments in the county.

"I think the foundation has been laid for nine to 10 years," Mason said, adding that residents had enough and finally responded to his long-held positions.

Norman W. Lauenstein, a 5th District Democrat and 16-year council veteran, lost to newcomer Vincent Gardina, also largely over development concerns.

Lauenstein had become identified with rapid development and traffic congestion in the Perry Hall-White Marsh areas of his district, Gardina said, as well as a target of angry waterfront property owners whose assessments and property tax bills had increased substantially in recent years.

In the Catonsville-Arbutus area of western Baltimore County, 12-year council incumbent Ronald B. Hickernell, also a Democrat, narrowly escaped a similar fate, beating challenger George A. Abendshoen by less than 600 votes.

Observers say Hickernell suffered the revenge of voters for his proposal that 5,000 rural acres in the western part of the county be used for the Patapsco Town Center.

In Anne Arundel County, the Republican and Democratic contenders for county executive already have squared off over tax and spending issues.

"I think this is going to be a back-to-basics election: Who is going to deliver county services at a price people can afford," said Republican nominee Robert R. Neall. "The question is, how do we wring the most benefit out of every dollar?"

Neall, a former House of Delegates minority leader, criticized his Democratic rival, Theodore J. Sophocleus, for failing to control government spending during Sophocleus' eight years on the County Council.

"I have a proven record of fighting unnecessary expenditures," Neall said, explaining that he used to scour the state budget for possible cuts and even arithmetical errors.

But Sophocleus punched back. "I don't see where he was so tight-fisted. I think the budget at the state level has increased dramatically," he said.

The Democrat also rapped Neall for failing to attend County Council meetings to learn more about the local budget process.

Tax concerns were seen as boosting at least one Democratic challenger's position in the race for the county executive nomination, although not enough to defeat Sophocleus.

Dennis Callahan, a former mayor of Annapolis, was a surprise second-place finisher Tuesday and many observers pointed to his partial embrace of the position held by tax revolters.

Meanwhile, Arundel officials were reacting to the effects of growth issues, not only on their own elections, but elections elsewhere in the state.

Robert Agee, aide to lame-duck Anne Arundel County Executive James Lighthizer, was surprised to hear that Montgomery County Executive Sydney Kramer had been defeated in the primary by veteran activist Neal Potter, who had promised to clamp down on one of the fastest growing counties in the state.

Agee said that Lighthizer had met with Kramer and Howard County Executive Elizabeth Bobo close to two years ago and warned them that they needed to move quickly on growth-control measures because of a mounting political climate against development.

"Bobo responded, but Kramer felt that it really wasn't necessary to do anything," Agee said.

Bobo, though, may not be out of the woods yet.

News of Kramer's defeat reverberated throughout neighboring Howard, where growth has been even more dramatic despite its smaller size.

Republican leaders made it clear that they intend to blame Howard's growth on Bobo.

Said Carol Arscott, chairwoman of the county GOP Central Committee, "Voters will come to believe as we believe that the growth situation in the county is a mess and they will blame the Democrats for that."

Despite the GOP's apparently strong stance, it was Republican Charles E. Ecker who won his party's nomination by defeating Gilbert E. South, who had been harsher in his attacks on Bobo's growth policies.

Ecker, in fact, has said he would possibly seek even higher growth levels than provided in Bobo's 1990 general plan.

Bobo's plan, which is a 20-year blueprint for growth, calls for the development of 2,500 housing units a year. Ecker said he might seek as many as 3,000 units annually over the 20-year period in order to make sure the county can generate enough revenue to pay for necessary capital projects.

Bobo predicted that she would not suffer Kramer's fate because of growth controls laid out in the general plan, and her Growth Management Act of 1989, which has virtually shut down development in recent months.

She added that she also had the most conservative record on growth among council members during her tenure there. She said she was glad the Republicans are eager to discuss growth.

"It's going to be an issue regardless of whether the Republicans bring it up or not," Bobo said. "We're very comfortable and very confident running on our record."

Growth was nearly the only issue in the race for a seat on the Carroll County commission, even though no candidate was defeated because of a pro-growth platform.

Republican Julia Gouge, the only commissioner running for re-election to Carroll's three-member panel, received her party's nod despite the many challengers running against the rapid development that occurred during her four years in office.

Gouge was forced to explain the county's growth management policies to voters concerned about why a new supermarket had suddenly sprouted in a cornfield, for example.

Of the 18 commission candidates -- nine Republicans and nine Democrats -- the three winners in each party and the losers each had their own way of addressing the issues associated with rapid growth.

Misti Plog, a weigh-master at the county dump in Westminster, said she became a candidate after people who came to the facility complained to her about growth pressures. She vowed to "clean house," but her bid was unsuccessful.

Other attempts proved more fruitful.

Republican Richard Yates, who was defeated in a bid for the county commission in 1986, ran a successful campaign this time. His slogan: "Had Enough?"

The slogan is targeted at residents fears over rising property tax assessments that growth has brought.

Yates said he realizes that much of the growth in Carroll had been planned, and he is interested in controlling the associated costs. The growth itself will slow eventually, he said.

Yates conceded, however, that "I think what [voters] want is for someone to come in and wave a magic wand and say, 'I'm going to stop all this growth.'"

No matter the issue being discussed in the campaign, the trail appeared always to lead back to growth.

Sharon Baker, a social worker who won a Democratic nomination, said that even on the topic of education, voters focused more on school crowding. "It does get back to growth," she said.

In Harford County, observers had long predicted that residents, infused by young, politically active newcomers, would demand a leadership change that would put an end to the rapid growth of the 1980s.

They appeared to be right. In the hottest primary, Del. Eileen M. Rehrmann dealt an overwhelming defeat to Councilwoman Barbara A. Risacher to win the Democratic nomination for county executive.

Risacher's support for the now-dead Windsor Mall project, as well as her association with a County Council considered insensitive to environmental concerns was viewed as bringing about her demise in the primary.

Rehrmann, who has spent the last eight years in the General Assembly, has not had to contend with the bitter local fights over growth.

Also in Harford, long-time Democratic Councilman John W. Schafer was ousted by Theresa M. Pierno for the nomination in District C. Pierno had consistently taken the side of disgruntled community activists when campaigning on growth issues.

"I think, definitely, that growth was a big issue in the campaign," said Pierno, who is running unopposed in the general election.

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