"It's a little early" to be talking about candidates for next year's Anne Arundel County executive race, Democratic Central Committee Chairman Bill Waldecker said recently.
But not too early.
With the current county executive, Bobby Neall, almost certain to run for governor and two Johns, Leopold and Gary, set to fight each other to succeed him as the county's leading Republican, the Democrats have added incentive to rally around one strong candidate ASAP.
"We've always had a problem with too many" Democrats competing in the executive primary, said Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, D-Brooklyn Park.
Remember the last election, in 1990, when county councilmen Ted Sophocleus and Mike Gilligan, former Annapolis Mayor Dennis Callahan and former Del. Pat Aiken made mincemeat of one another while Neall sailed through the primary with nary a scratch?
"It would be nice for a change if we could have a consensus candidate," Senator Jimeno said.
The question is, who?
At this point, there are many names floating about, but some -- former U.S. Rep. Tom McMillen, Anne Arundel Community College President Tom Florestano, former County Councilman Ron McGuirk -- are no more than random suggestions from party insiders. And even among the viable contenders there is no one who wants the executive's job the way Messrs. Gary and Leopold covet it.
"There's no one out there who has the fire in the belly," said Del. Michael Busch, D-Annapolis.
Until recently, Mr. Sophocleus appeared to have that fire. He has been talking about running again practically ever since he lost the 1990 election by a mere percentage point; he knows how to run a campaign of that scope, and he probably has the best name recognition of any Democrat in the county.
But his appointment to fill a vacant seat in the House of Delegates, coupled with the recent flap over a controversial 1989 pension bill he helped pass, has reduced the odds that he will run.
A campaign for his House seat would be hundreds of thousands of dollars cheaper and far less risky than the executive's race; aided by Sen. Michael Wagner's powerful North County ticket, Mr. Sophocleus would be virtually assured of winning. That would keep him in the political game until 1998, with far less headaches than he'd endure in the Arundel Center.
So while Mr. Sophocleus hasn't ruled out another run for executive, neither does that office seem to fascinate him as it once did.
In fact, he says, "I don't want people focusing on that while I'm trying to do this House of Delegates thing."
Without Mr. Sophocleus, who do the Democrats have?
Mr. Wagner, the dean of the party, doesn't want the job; he likes being a senator and wields considerable clout besides.
There are Mr. Busch and Mr. Jimeno, two likable men who represent their districts well and have seen their influence grow during these past four years. They both said "yes" when party leaders asked them to keep an open mind about running for executive. Of the two, Mr. Jimeno is both the stronger candidate and the more interested.
"I'm flattered by the number of people who have contacted me about the race, and I certainly haven't discounted it," he said.
But he, like Mr. Busch, said he'll probably seek to return to his existing seat.
Councilwoman Virginia P. Clagett, D-West River, who has toyed with the idea of being executive in the past, has been planning to run for the same Senate seat Mr. Astle wants. Party leaders are encouraging her to try for the House instead to avoid a confrontation between two strong Democratic candidates, an option she is said to be considering.
Councilman David G. Boschert, D-Crownsville, who, like Mrs. Clagett, cannot serve another council term, has mused about running. But his name is not being circulated right now.
Party leaders say they are not worried that the cast of characters remains so iffy. Already they've been meeting informally to gauge the field of candidates and are considering doing some polling to measure who has the best chance.
"Everybody assumes the Democrats are out of it, and that's not the case," Mr. Jimeno says. "We're going to have a full slate of good Democrats -- not the old slate of old political bosses, but new people, committed to working in their communities."
"In a few months," Mr. Waldecker says, "they probably will be coming out of the woodwork."
But the Democrats don't need candidates coming out of the woodwork. They need one strong candidate who can sit back and gather strength while the Republicans go at it. It is early. But not too early to discover who that person might be.
Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.