DEMOCRATS ARE serving notice they intend an aggressive campaign on every level next year in western Howard County, where Republicans have dominated in recent elections.
In 2002 no Democrat ran against the late state Sen. Robert H. Kittleman, and his son, Allan, won a second County Council term with 72 percent of the vote. The elder Kittleman died last year, and his son was appointed to the Senate seat.
Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman told a group of about 35 party faithful at the Glenwood library last week that "Democrats have made serious mistakes concentrating on Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George's counties" to win elections, and he is planning to change the strategy in 2006.
"We need to be much more inclusive," he told the group, who also heard from U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings and County Council Chairman Guy Guzzone, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat expected to run for county executive next year.
Democrats need to be more visibly active, challenge every Republican candidate and not concede anything in places like western Howard, Lierman said. The appeal should be based on specific issues, he added.
According to current Howard County election board figures, 14,610 registered Democrats live in County Council District 5, covering the western county, compared with 19,077 Republicans and 6,168 independents. For Howard's portion of legislative District 9, covering much of the same area, 25,474 Republicans outnumber 23,248 Democrats with 9,521 independents.
Lierman said Democrats should talk about a 40 percent increase in public college tuition in Maryland since Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., took office in 2002, about Ehrlich's failure to fully fund the Thornton education reform package, about possible Medicaid cuts and Ehrlich's vetoes of bills, including one to cut medical malpractice insurance premiums to doctors.
Ehrlich is a one-issue governor -- "the gambling governor," Lierman said.
But Sterling Solomon, 77, of Clarksville upbraided Lierman for the criticism.
"You spent 70 percent of your time on what is wrong with the governor. Let's stop finding fault. Let's get rid of the negativism" that Solomon said has so poisoned the atmosphere in Washington.
Lierman quickly agreed, saying, "He's right. We have to be for something."
Guzzone took exactly that approach.
With Howard County schools, libraries, parks and its bond-borrowing status in the top rung of communities nationally, "we've got a great story" to tell, he said. Outside the library meeting room's window, construction is under way on a senior/community center and a regional park. Nearby, there are plans to build two elementary schools and add 400 seats to Glenelg High.
"We're willing to do the things to create this kind of community -- things that others are not," he said, noting that during the 2003 debate over a Democratic push to increase local income taxes it was the County Council's two Republicans who instead suggested cutting the library budget by $1 million.
Howard Republican Party Chairman Howard M. Rensin said later that the Democrats "can spin their wheels all they want" in GOP territory. Ehrlich took office facing a huge projected deficit, he said, which has now been largely eliminated.
"At the end of the day, they no longer represent the values and issues closest to the people of Maryland," he said. "The Republican Party is the 'big tent' party where there is no cure-all like taxing people to death to fund programs that don't work. We are about conservatives, moderates and liberals coming together as Americans who share the common belief that government is not the solution but the problem."
The petition drive
The seemingly successful drive to petition the County Council's rezoning bill to referendum next year could affect other election races -- including the contest for Howard County executive.
Angela Beltram, a Democrat and former County Council member, said she will back any candidate who supports her group's initiative on the November 2006 ballot, even if that means a Republican. Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican running for executive, was the only member to vote against the so-called "Comp-Lite" zoning bill March 7, while Guzzone voted for the bill as part of a 4-1 majority.
Beltram filed 3,058 more signatures last week at the county election board. Because 5,000 valid signatures are needed to put the bill on the ballot, and the board had validated 4,475 signatures, the petition drive seems likely to succeed.
But all members of the loose coalition of community activists involved in the drive don't agree about the political implications of the effort.
"We have more Democrats than Republicans. We're nonpartisan," said Pat Casal, a St. Johns Lane-area resident active in the campaign. "Our goal is to change Comp-Lite, not to change the council," she said.
"People are now paying attention to the zoning process. Now the average homeowner is aware," said Patty Fennell, who like others involved in the effort said people are increasingly fed up with traffic and school congestion while new homes are going up on every vacant lot.