No nod from club; Obama, Clinton camps OK with it

The Baltimore Sun

Columbia Democratic Club members came within one vote of endorsing Sen. Barack Obama but ended up not formally backing any presidential candidate in Maryland's Feb. 12 primary - a result that supporters of both Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said they are happy about.

C. Vernon Gray, an Obama supporter and former five-term County Council member, could have given his man the club's official nod if he had stayed at the meeting last week to vote on the second ballot.

"I didn't think they would have a second ballot," a sheepish Gray said the next day, lamenting that he had not asked anyone to call him from the Jeffers Hill Community Center meeting if he was needed. "That's ironic."

Gray is administrator of the county Office of Human Rights and executive secretary of the Human Rights Commission.

On the first ballot, 31 members voted, and Obama got 14 votes to Clinton's nine, with three votes each for former Sen. John Edwards and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. got two votes. Club rules require a majority of those voting for the endorsement.

On the second ballot, with 30 voters participating, Obama got 15 votes, picking up the two Biden ballots, while Clinton stayed at nine and Edwards and Richardson again got three votes each. Gray's vote would have given Obama 16 votes, a bare majority.

The club tried a third ballot, but it was inconclusive again. Still, no one was complaining.

"I'm thrilled," said David Marker, a club member who spoke for Obama before the voting. He had feared Clinton would win, he said.

Pam Guzzone, who spoke for Clinton, said she also was pleased because "we did not expect to win," but Obama didn't get the endorsement.

All the Democrats stressed that the winner of the nomination will get enthusiastic support from everyone in the party.

"We're going to be good," Guzzone said.

Meanwhile, for those voters fed up with the their political party the deadline is 9 p.m. tomorrow to change party registration before Maryland's presidential primary election, said Betty L. Nordaas, county elections board administrator.

Ulman as lobbyist

How can a small county's elected leader protect his budget when the General Assembly and Maryland's governor are hashing out $1.7 billion worth of tax increases and budget cuts in a fast-paced special session?

With myriad statewide proposals and political accusations flying, the potential financial fallout on a county like Howard might seem like small potatoes, which is why County Executive Ken Ulman spent a week lobbying in Annapolis before setting off last week on a long-planned family vacation.

"I'm on the board of MACo [Maryland Association of Counties], and we're interested in working to protect counties," Ulman said.

To do that, he said, he concentrated on "making the case of what the effect [of changes] would be."

It helps that Howard has six legislators on key committees.

Two state senators, Majority Leader Edward J. Kasemeyer, and former County Executive James N. Robey, both Democrats, serve on the Senate Budget and Tax Committee. Kasemeyer is vice chairman there. On the House side, veteran Del. Frank S. Turner, a Democrat, is on Ways and Means, which deals with taxes, and he chairs the subcommittee on slot machines. Democratic Dels. Guy Guzzone and Steven J. DeBoy Sr. and Republican Del. Gail H. Bates are on House Appropriations, which handles budgets and budget cuts.

Ulman and Robey said they worked to make sure Howard gets its share of impact money for infrastructure improvements if slot machines come to Laurel Park, which is on the Howard-Anne Arundel county line.

A bigger budget bullet that Ulman wanted to dodge is any move to force counties to absorb more of the costs of teachers' pensions.

Another problem, Ulman said, was the plan to use half the potential revenues from higher sales taxes to bolster the state's transportation trust fund, instead of raising gasoline taxes, which are dedicated for that purpose.

Transportation funding from the gas tax automatically funnels 30 percent of revenues to counties for road and bridge projects, but the sales tax revenue would not provide that split, said Ulman and David S. Bliden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties.

If the General Assembly is not able to agree on expanding the sales tax's reach and boost revenues by covering more goods and services, the money that goes to transportation would have to be replaced from some other source.

"It creates a $420 million [statewide] hole that needs to be filled somehow," Ulman said, because the sales tax revenues diverted to transportation will not go into the state's general fund budget.

Ulman has said that he knows the county will take some financial hit, but he wants to minimize the loss to $8 million or less. Republican County Councilman Greg Fox has argued that Ulman should have limited spending in this year's Howard budget in case state cuts to counties are large, but Robey said the cuts would be "modest."

Ulman's absence during the last days of negotiations over differences in the packages approved by the House of Delegates and the state Senate did not hurt the county, Robey said.

"I'm a past president of MACo," he said. "We're well-aware of what the county's priorities are."

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