The way Howard County Council candidate Greg Fox figures it, if there's any chance for a young Republican to win in old Democratic Columbia, he'll be the one who does it Tuesday.
Of course, that's a big if: 60-year-old District 4 Democrat Mary C. Lorsung represents the most Democratic council district in the county -- 53 percent Democrat to just more than 30 percent Republican -- and many of those Democrats are voters from her generation who moved to Columbia a quarter-century ago.
Still, Fox thinks he has a chance in large part because he is "high energy" and Lorsung is "low key." Lorsung sees herself as an active behind-the-scenes facilitator, helping communities help themselves. Fox sees himself as more outspoken.
"I really feel that this district needs a voice," says Fox, 31. "On major issues, you ought to be out there and be a voice."
He's talking about how the two would differ on the council, but he might as well be talking about how he and Lorsung, and their respective parties, have approached local campaigns this year.
In council races, as in the county executive's race, Republican candidates have done a better job of raising money and seeking publicity than their Democratic counterparts. The result is that Republicans are perceived to have taken the lead on one of the most critical suburban concerns, growth, while the Democrats have failed to take full advantage of the education issue, which could have been a winner for them after last spring's heated budget battle between GOP leaders and the school system.
In an election year in which Democrats hope to regain control of the County Council -- all three Republican council incumbents are leaving office while both Democratic incumbents are running again -- some Democrats wish the party had done more.
"I would have liked to have had more exposure, quite honestly," said District 5 Democratic contender Debra Ann Slack Katz, who is waging an uphill battle in a conservative district against Republican candidate Allan Kittleman, son of well-known Del. Robert H. Kittleman. "It concerns me that [Republicans] did have this exposure and these press conferences and we seem to be late on the draw."
Republicans have held several news conferences to push their messages on issues such as growth and education, packaging their candidacies as a team with GOP county executive candidate Dennis R. Schrader. Two Republicans, Kittleman and Ellicott City candidate Christopher J. Merdon, have scored points with slow-growth supporters by rejecting campaign contributions from developers and outlining positions on how to better manage growth. Schrader and the five GOP council candidates can credit their coordinated message in no small measure to having a shared political consultant, former local party chief Carol Arscott.
Meanwhile, without a central organizing force, Democratic council candidates have taken the low-key tack of Lorsung. Party leaders have not organized the candidates as a team with the Democratic county executive nominee, James N. Robey -- though today they are expected to do so at their first joint news conference, six days before the election.
Until now, the candidates have delivered their message mostly when they are asked to respond to opponents. They have campaigned separately, and for the most part quietly, in their respective districts.
"They have missed an opportunity here," says Robert Ardinger, an adjunct professor of political science at Howard Community College.
The notable exception is District 3 candidate Guy Guzzone, the Democrats' hope to regain a majority on the council. The Kings Contrivance Democrat is running television advertising on local cable, sending out numerous mailings to voters in the southeastern Howard district and knocking on perhaps more doors than any other council candidate. He says he also has sent roughly 2,000 personalized notes to voters he has visited, often updating them on what he's done about neighborhood concerns.
"This is by far the hardest thing I've ever worked at in all my life," Guzzone said.
Guzzone needs to work that hard because he is facing a relatively well-known opponent, Republican Wanda Hurt, a longtime community activist who has served on the Columbia Council and who ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for the
House of Delegates in 1994. Hurt's name recognition, moderate politics and allegiance with the district's outgoing council member, Schrader, gave her a head-start in a race that is expected to be close, and like Guzzone, she is an extremely active campaigner.
In contrast to Kittleman and Merdon, though, she has been less specific on issues, allowing Guzzone to grab attention with proposals on managing growth and increasing compensation for police officers. Hurt also says she wants to better manage residential growth, but she has generally shied away from details, saying she'd prefer to study the issue further once elected.
Guzzone also has tried to score points on education by criticizing the Republican-approved local income tax cut this year, saying the money could have helped reduce class sizes. Hurt, a former PTA activist, has reluctantly supported the tax cut, which averages $51 a taxpayer.
Slack Katz and District 1 Democrat George Layman, meanwhile, have some of the same stands on issues as Guzzone. But with less money and little help from top party leaders, they have watched their opponents, Kittleman and Merdon, take the spotlight in the races to succeed GOP council veterans Charles C. Feaga of District 5 and Darrel E. Drown of District 1.
Ardinger places at least part of the blame on the two Democratic incumbents, C. Vernon Gray of east Columbia and Lorsung of west Columbia. Theirs are the two most solidly Democratic council districts in the county.
"They should have taken the lead on forming these teams," Ardinger said. Instead, he said, they "played it safe" because they're expected to win.
Gray, whose District 2 Republican challenger is Susan Cook, has won four consecutive terms, has no difficulty raising money and is expected to win a fifth term. He says he has worked hard for other candidates and that the candidates have a unified message on supporting public education.
Lorsung, meanwhile, might have a closer race than she would like, say some political observers. Fox has run an aggressive campaign, hoping to make strong inroads in newer, well-to-do subdivisions in River Hill and southwest of Columbia, where many young parents like himself have located.
Lorsung has more traditionally liberal positions than Fox on such issues as affordable housing and government spending, but Fox argues it's a "myth" that the district is liberal.
He boasts that he has "30 to 40" yard signs in Democratic front yards, that he has support in the Jewish and minority communities. And he says that although his polling shows him trailing Lorsung, his chances of winning aren't "far-fetched." (Like other candidates, he will not release his poll data.)
"This is an educated community that votes on the people and not just on the party," Fox says.
However, Lorsung has loyal volunteers to match her opponent's, strong support from the elderly and decades of good will in older Columbia. Fox acknowledges that even though the district is changing, it might not be ready to elect a Republican over a well-liked incumbent Democrat.
If he does lose, he says, it won't be for lack of trying: "Everybody sees me everywhere."
Pub Date: 10/28/98