A novice politician challenges a County Council incumbent

The Baltimore Sun

Armed with a stack of campaign brochures and a clipboard, Republican candidate for County Council Gina Ellrich and her 11-year-old daughter, Gabriella, went door to door in the Columbia Hills community this week speaking with residents.

The novice politician says the legwork is winning her support among residents in the district, where registered Democratic voters outnumber Republicans 2 to 1. District 2 covers east Columbia, Jessup and parts of Elkridge and Ellicott City.

"That's the one thing that's really good about knocking on doors: You get to see and talk with people and they get to know who you are," Ellrich said.

Getting her name out is crucial for Ellrich because her opponent is the heavily favored incumbent Democrat Calvin Ball, the only council member seeking re-election.

Ellrich, who defeated David R. Hlass in the primary for the Republican nomination, is confident that she can win in the Democratic district, echoing the confidence of county GOP leaders.

"Gina can win, and she is the better candidate because she has been hitting doors and she has been known in the district. ... People meet her and they identify with her," said county Republican Party Chairman Brian Harlin. "She's got a great balance from a professional experience, and she's a mother, and that is something to bring to the new council."

Ellrich, a married 39-year-old Ellicott City resident with three children, said she has learned leadership qualities as a spokeswoman in Washington for United Parcel Service and the American Red Cross.

"Working as a spokeswoman, I have been a senior manager and have been on the front lines. ... Because of my instinct, I have been put into those positions and I will serve as a good manager and will not be caught up in partisan politics," Ellrich said.

If she is elected, she said, she plans to tackle the issues of tax relief for the elderly, development and affordable housing.

Ellrich, a corporate communications specialist who works out of her home, said she supports the slow-growth plan of County Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, the Republican nominee for executive.

"Chris Merdon has laid out what is a good plan because it provides some impact fees for developers so the current residents are not bearing the cost of growth," Ellrich said.

Besides Ball, Ellrich is up against the history of District 2. For the past 24 years, the district has chosen an African-American Democrat to represent it, including David A. Rakes and five-term member C. Vernon Gray.

Ellrich and GOP leaders believe that issues, not race, will decide the election.

Ball, the only African-American on the council and the only one running for a council seat, has been criticized by Republicans for using the term incumbent because he was not voted in. Ball was appointed to the council in April to fill the vacancy created when Rakes resigned. Ball lost to Rakes in 2002.

"In my mind, months of experience is not really solid experience, and he was not elected by the citizens; he was selected to be in that position," Ellrich said.

Ball, 30, said he has made significant progress since taking office, noting his work on council issues that include the $1.2 billion operating budget, the smoking ban and zoning issues.

"My experience gives citizens better understanding of my purpose as opposed to my promises," Ball said. "Other candidates are just making promises.

"Right now, I am the council person, and when there are decisions made and when residents need representation, they come to me. They don't say, 'Who was the last guy we voted in?'"

Democratic leaders defend Ball's record.

"Calvin was a community activist, and he has been working to better his community for many years. You can't call him a novice when he's involved in the community," said Democratic Party Chairman Michael McPherson. "He's just decided to reach out and serve the community on a different level. ...

"Calvin is an incumbent, and [Republicans] say he's inexperienced. It's just like anything else: You have to get started someplace, and he's gaining experience each day by doing the job. His opponent is not doing the job."

'Priority items'

Ball, husband of a Howard County General Hospital nurse and father of a 3-year-old and an 8-month-old, said that if elected he will work on "some priority items like more community policing - more officers and a bike unit to patrol our neighborhood village centers and pathways."

Ball, a part-time teacher and full-time doctoral student, said he wants to provide county schools with the resources they need to continue to excel, including financial literacy classes and renovations.

"Most of all," he said, "I want to make sure the residents of District 2 have a strong voice on quality-of-life issues."

Some of Ball's action on the council has sparked criticism.

At an Oct. 3 Ellicott City candidate forum on development sponsored by Angela Beltram's Citizens for an Open Process group, Ball drew fire from Republicans.

Housing bill

Merdon and Ellrich scorned him for introducing an affordable-housing bill in September that he later withdrew.

The bill, which Ball said county housing officials asked him to introduce, would have allowed the county housing commission to join with private interests to build moderate-income housing on commercially zoned land without regard to zoning limits on the number of units per acre.

A 59-unit apartment building on 2 1/2 acres in Ellicott City would have been aided by the bill, but it applied countywide, raising fears that large buildings would be built on small lots all around the county.

Ball said he realized after introducing the bill that it would need amendments. But he said there was too little time to change the measure before the Nov. 7 election and so he withdrew it.

"My opponent, who was recruited by the party of Chris Merdon, Bob Ehrlich and George Bush, has spent a lot of time attacking me," Ball said during Wednesday's candidate forum, which was sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Howard County.

"I think most of the reason ... is she wants to distract me from serving the constituents of District 2 and deter me from offering intelligent and constructive criticism of Chris Merdon's partisan leadership. I will not be distracted nor deterred."


Sun reporter Larry Carson contributed to this article.

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