At the risk of revealing what is probably the worst-kept political secret in the county, Carroll State's Attorney Thomas E. Hickman will ask voters in 1994 to return him to the office he has held for the past 20 years.
"There is no question that I will run for re-election as long as the good Lord is willing," the five-term Republican said Friday afternoon.
The 1994 election is still more than a year away, but campaigning in what is routinely one of the hardest-fought political battles in Carroll has begun, if not in earnest, at least quietly.
And, if political and legal observers are correct, Carroll voters can expect to see the same cast of characters as in 1990, when Mr. Hickman almost lost to his one-time assistant, Jerry F. Barnes. Observers say that should Mr. Barnes -- now an assistant state's attorney in Frederick -- decide to run, he will take on Mr. Hickman in the Republican primary in September.
Neither man has officially filed to enter the race. Mr. Barnes -- who left the Carroll State's Attorney's Office and briefly switched to the Democratic Party to take on his former boss -- isn't commenting publicly on his political ambitions.
But his wife, former newspaper reporter Carmen Amedori, said yesterday that Mr. Barnes is seeking "the support of some Republicans" before he decides whether to challenge Mr. Hickman.
"He wants to know that he will have the backing to wage a formidable campaign," Ms. Amedori said. "He doesn't feel he could do it on his own."
Mr. Barnes was a Democrat for about a year; election records show that he returned to the GOP in July 1991.
Mr. Hickman said Friday that he wouldn't be surprised if Mr. Barnes entered the race, but he's poised to take on anyone who runs.
He has defeated four Democrats and run unopposed once in his career as state's attorney. Three of those races, he said, were particularly hard-fought.
"You never get used to the tough races, and 1990 was particularly vociferous," Mr. Hickman said.
A Republican Party distracted by a 1994 version of the Tom and Jerry show could give Democrats their best chance at taking the seat away from the GOP.
"A contest between him and Barnes presents an outstanding opportunity to replace Tom Hickman," said Carroll Democratic Committee Chairman Greg Pecoraro. "It would seem a race like three years ago would be likely to happen again."
The race three years ago -- which Mr. Hickman won by fewer than 700 votes -- was dominated by mudslinging and name-calling. Mr. Barnes accused Mr. Hickman of misconduct in office; Mr. Hickman accused Mr. Barnes of associating with "known criminals." Both candidates took shots at each other almost daily.
"The race has taken some nasty overtones," Joseph M. Getty, a member of the county's Republican Central Committee, said in October 1990.
No Democrats have publicly expressed interest in taking on either Mr. Hickman or Mr. Barnes, but prominent party members say privately that "several local attorneys" are expressing interest.
"Everybody has sort of assumed Barnes and Hickman would square off in the primary," said one local defense lawyer, who asked not to be named. "Jerry could have won that election, but he got into the gutter with Hickman. It's all very depressing. The legal community as a whole is looking for someone to fill that office in a statesmanlike manner."
For his part, Mr. Hickman is off to an early start. He has all the advantages of incumbency, a staff of 33 employees and a guaranteed public forum whenever he chooses to prosecute a case.
Recently, he has taken to criticizing Mr. Barnes' handling of a 1989 tractor-theft ring, appearing in high-profile court cases -- such as the recent bail hearing for a former state official accused of burglary -- and holding political fund-raisers.
Last month, several hundred people turned out at the Winfield fire station for a $25-a-plate meal. Among the guests were former U.S.
Attorney Richard D. Bennett, who hopes to represent the GOP in the race for Maryland attorney general. U.S. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, R-6th; state Sen. Larry D. Haines, R-5th; and Carroll Sheriff John H. Brown also were in attendance.
The primary is set for Sept. 13, with the general election Nov. 8. Candidates have until July 5 to announce their intention to run.