When he tried to prove that Republican Councilman William A. Howard IV didn't live in Baltimore County by hiring a private eye to spy on the Howard family, Joseph Bartenfelder thought he would create a campaign issue.
L He did, but Mr. Howard and his wife, Carmella, are using it.
Last week, Mrs. Howard dared Mr. Bartenfelder -- a Democrat who left the General Assembly to seek the 6th District County Council seat -- to file a formal complaint with the county election board in a letter she faxed to news reporters.
She also had a concise statement about her three years as a political spouse: "I hate the world of politics," she wrote.
Mr. Howard called his challenger a power-hungry manipulator trying to gain office by "hiring a private detective to trail my wife and videotape my kids." He told the crowd at a Perry Hall candidates' night Thursday that "you don't have to have a councilman you're afraid of."
Stung by the attention paid to his tactics, Mr. Bartenfelder has backed off the issue in the past several weeks. He said he was so upset once that he thought about quitting politics. He has not filed a formal complaint about Mr. Howard's residency.
Even so, Mr. Bartenfelder said the real issue is where Mr. Howard lives.
Both sides agree that Mr. Howard maintains an apartment in Carney, while his wife has kept the townhouse she bought in the Abingdon section of Harford County before they married three years ago. Mr. Howard said his wife doesn't want to sell the house in a depressed market or rent it to strangers who might damage it. He said they can't afford a new home in Baltimore County, so they split their time between the residences.
Mr. Bartenfelder said he hired the detective to get proof for his argument that Mr. Howard is violating the county charter by living outside the county and is ineligible to continue in office.
The detective marked the Howards' car tires outside the Harford County house each night for 13 nights in August and checked back several hours later to see if they had moved. On the morning of Aug. 17, he also videotaped the Howards leaving the house with their children.
"Nobody was followed," Mr. Bartenfelder said. "We just checked the [Abingdon] house. If your wife and kids were 15 minutes away, where would you sleep?"
How the issue will play with voters remains to be seen. Margaret Wilhelm, a Perry Hall resident and Bartenfelder supporter who attended Thursday night's forum said she couldn't believe that Mr. Bartenfelder would ever "stoop so low" as to hire a detective.
Others wondered why a popular politician such as Mr. Bartenfelder would stir up such a controversy when his campaign was doing well.
On the other hand, Dorothy McMann, president of the Perry Hall Community Association, which sponsored the candidates' forum, said using a detective doesn't bother her. "If I were a young girl now getting married, I would hire one" to investigate the prospective groom.
Others were just puzzled. "It's kind of confusing," Rich Hilbert said. He said a councilman should live in his district, but hiring a detective "is not the right thing to do."