He has been meeting with potential rivals and his kitchen Cabinet, but former state Del. Phillip D. Bissett says he's still not ready to go public with any plan to dethrone Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens.
"I have made up my mind, but I'm not ready to announce," said Bissett, a South County Republican who served two terms in the legislature and was defeated for a third term by Del. C. Richard D'Amato, the Annapolis Democrat who won the seat in 1998.
Republican strategists see a strong candidate in Bissett, who was chairman of the county's General Assembly delegation for three years and has done well in informal polls. Residents surveyed at the county fair last summer preferred Bissett over other GOP favorites, said Terry R. Gilleland, chairman of the Anne Arundel County Republican Central Committee.
"I think he has the best shot," Gilleland said, adding that Bissett has the backing of "a lot of party loyalists and faithful."
Bissett, 45, says he could run for a seat on the County Council, but his fund-raising goal - about $500,000, the same amount the Owens camp says it expects to raise - and recent campaign activities point to something grander.
"I have traveled the county and met with all the potential candidates," said Bissett, referring to Republicans Atwood "Barry" Tate, former County Council legal counsel; Del. John R. Leopold; and Circuit Court Clerk Robert P. Duckworth.
"I don't believe there will be a primary election," said Bissett, hinting that he has, or will have, the full support of his party and its local members.
But Bissett's GOP colleagues aren't bowing out. All three men say that their supporters are urging them to challenge the Democratic incumbent, but that they haven't made up their minds whether to do so.
"It's still early," said Duckworth, who beat Owens by about 10,000 votes in 1994 when she ran against him for Circuit Court clerk.
"I never close the door," said Leopold.
Bissett, a Mayo resident who is a lobbyist for a manufacturer of devices that prevent drunken drivers from starting their cars, appears committed.
He started laying the groundwork for a campaign about six months ago, making the rounds to shore up support throughout the county. This month, he held a $200-a-ticket cigar dinner at the Top Side Inn in Galesville. According to those who attended, the talk around the two long tables that Bissett had loaded with fine cigars, steaks and crab cakes was about the county's top elected seat.
"The buzz was more about him going after the county executive's seat," said Bruce C. Bereano, an Annapolis lobbyist who attended the event with about 50 other people.
Bissett's most recent filing with the state Board of Elections shows that his election committee has about $90 in the bank, which doesn't include money raised at the cigar party.
Candidates have until July 1 to file for the November 2002 general election.
Owens, who faces a difficult budget process next year partly because of diminishing state subsidies and a projected drop in local tax revenues, started her re-election campaign in earnest recently, appearing at parties thrown in her honor at Dotson's Live in Glen Burnie and at a friend's house in South County.
Supporters - including Owens' husband, Baltimore attorney David M. Sheehan - persuaded Sheriff George F. Johnson IV, also a Democrat, to put off a bid for the county executive seat until Owens has served two terms, the maximum allowed under term limits.
Owens' most recent campaign finance report showed that she had $165,302 in the bank, but that doesn't include $80,000 her campaign treasurer says she raised at the South County event, for which attendees paid as much as $1,000 a ticket.
Bissett, who is a member of the county's liquor board - a position he said he would give up should he decide to run for office - said he is not intimidated by Owens' campaign machine.
He was scheduled to meet last night with a team of political strategists to discuss ways to raise money and attack Owens' record at future public appearances and debates.
If he decides to run against Owens, Bissett said, he would outline a clear vision for the county, as well as strategies to reach his goals. "I would like to show people that there is a value in planning, that there is a value in leadership," he said yesterday.
Bissett said he is nearing the day when he might announce his entry in the race.
"I am closer today than I was yesterday," he said.