Nearly two years before Anne Arundel voters select their next county executive, prospective candidates have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars as they jockey for the front of an incumbent-free field.
Political observers are predicting the executive race will be the most expensive in county history. The early fund-raising leaders appear to be Annapolis attorney Dirk Haire, a Republican who said he has raised about $200,000, and Sheriff George F. Johnson IV, a Democrat who said he has raised about the same.
On the Republican side, other possible candidates include Del. John R. Leopold of Pasadena, state official and former Del. Phillip D. Bissett and Baltimore teacher Tom Angelis. Bissett and Angelis ran unsuccessfully for county executive in 2002.
Other Democrats who could run include county parks director and former Annapolis Mayor Dennis M. Callahan and two County Council members who can't run for council again under county rules: Barbara D. Samorajczyk and Bill D. Burlison.
"I think they all see this as a window to control the county for eight more years, whether it's Republican or Democratic," said County Executive Janet S. Owens, a Democrat who is prohibited from seeking a third term. "And it's a wide-open race."
Haire has said he hopes to raise $1.5 million, about what he figures a candidate would need to win a contested congressional race. He said the money would be needed for television and newspaper ads - expensive because an Anne Arundel candidate must appeal to both the Baltimore and Washington markets - and direct-mail campaigning.
"It is my view that that will be the cost of running in the manner I want," said Haire, 37, who serves as legal counsel to the state GOP and has already opened a downtown campaign office.
Haire and Johnson have begun their races so early and set such fierce fund-raising paces that some observers wonder whether late entrants will have a chance to catch up.
"Anyone who successfully establishes a campaign early is likely to limit the ... entry of other candidates," said Michael Malone, former chairman of the county's Republican State Central Committee.
But other candidates say they're not concerned by the aggressive fund raising.
"They're trying to intimidate people into thinking they can't run against them, but it's just a game," said Samorajczyk, a frequent critic of the Owens administration. "To me, a year of campaigning is plenty."
The candidate with the most money has not always won in Anne Arundel County. In 1998, then-County Executive John G. Gary, a Republican, raised a record sum only to be knocked off by Owens, who was widely viewed as a dark horse.
Owens said her campaign did not get rolling until five months before the 1998 primaries. She said a candidate could swoop in this time around but would probably need to be personally wealthy. "It's become so expensive to run here," she said.
Owens cannot run for a third term under county rules but has said she would consider running for state comptroller in 2006 if William Donald Schaefer does not seek re-election or for lieutenant governor if she were asked.
The GOP field has developed more quickly, partly because Republicans see 2006 as the year to seize a county that's leaning in their direction. Owens won a closer-than-expected re-election bid in 2002, the county overwhelmingly backed Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. for governor and voters last fall ousted two judges appointed by former Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat.
Haire has never run for office but has strong ties to county and state party officials.
The attorney said that his experience working on large business deals involving governments and corporations gives him better experience for the county executive job than former and current legislators, such as Bissett and Leopold.
He said he'll deliver better services without raising taxes.
"I'm willing to win or lose based on my refusal to accept the idea that we can't make improvements without raising taxes," he said.
Leopold, 61, has been perhaps the most dogged campaigner in the early field. He has been waving signs from street corners and knocking on doors for more than a year, promoting his 17-year record as a Maryland legislator. The moderate Republican said he has about $348,000 in his campaign coffers, including about $200,000 that he has lent the campaign.
"There's no such thing as too early in politics," he said. "This time has been extremely useful for building my base."
Leopold said he would focus on expanding the county's commercial tax base and improving constituent service from the executive's office.
The outspoken Bissett, 48, served as a delegate from 1991 to 1998 and gave Owens a surprisingly strong challenge as the Republican nominee in 2002. He lost by about 6,000 votes despite raising one-sixth as much money as Owens.
Bissett said he's not ready to reveal how much he has raised for the next campaign and wants "everybody to be surprised when the report comes out [later this week]."
Bissett, who is state director of MARC trains and bus services, said he's also confident he has countywide name recognition and a strong base of support. "I've already paid the bill for that, and I've got the battle scars to prove it," he said.
Angelis was soundly beaten by Bissett in the 2002 Republican primary but said he thinks he'll benefit from a more-crowded field. "I have core support, and if there are more candidates, you'll need fewer votes to win," he said.
Angelis, 58, has worked as a party activist for 30 years and has worn many professional hats, from being a police officer in Washington to leading the county parks and recreation department to his current teaching job. He said his campaign will focus heavily on improving county schools.
Of the Democrats, Johnson is serving his third term as sheriff. Johnson, 51, said his job gives him a leg up, because he meets citizens around the county every week.
Johnson said his law enforcement background will eliminate any concern that he might be too liberal for a county that has voted Republican in recent statewide and national elections.
"I think I'm not looked at like the typical Democrat running for office," he said.
Johnson encountered a rough patch last spring when a clerk in his department was caught embezzling more than $10,000. Johnson quickly fired the clerk, but a county auditor said the sheriff's management practices helped allow the theft.
Johnson said he expects his opponents to use the episode against him. "The key is we took strong, definitive action on making sure this does not occur again," he said.
Other Democrats are on the fence.
Callahan, 63, said he's still weighing a bid and has not started raising money. He said he needs to be careful, because his parks job takes him to every community in the county. "I don't want to be accused of doing anything for overtly political reasons," he said.
Callahan said he still has plenty of time to enter the race. "It's an open seat, and I think candidates will come out of the woodwork," he said.
Samorajczyk, 58, is deciding whether to run for county executive or the House of Delegates. The Annapolis-area Democrat, who can't seek a third straight council term under county rules, argues that the county must develop a long-term plan to manage growth before allowing more development.
"The government needs to find a way to provide infrastructure at the same time it's allowing more development," she said.
She also says the County Council needs more control over the county budget for Anne Arundel to have a balanced government.
Like Samorajczyk, Burlison, a former congressman from Missouri, cannot run again. "I really have not made a decision," he said of a possible run for county executive. "I'm really not thinking about it yet."
Burlison, 73, said he doesn't think voters will pay attention to the field until next January.