Political campaigns were relative financial bargains in Howard County until the 2006 county executive contest between Democrat Ken Ulman and Republican Christopher J. Merdon.
And Ulman's fundraising has accelerated since then.
His annual campaign finance report shows that he raised $272,595 last year -- more than former County Executive James N. Robey spent in either of his two winning campaigns. Ulman has three more years to raise money, meaning he's on a pace to top $1 million and easily beat the $785,848 he raised over four years before his 2006 campaign for executive.
County Republicans are speculating that he is envisioning higher office someday, if not in 2010.
"He's trying to dance on a bigger stage," said Del. Gail H. Bates.
"He's getting ready to run statewide," said state Sen. Allan H. Kittleman.
Ulman played down the notion of loftier ambitions.
"It's flattering that people mention those kinds of things," he said. "I've been in this job for one year. I'm happy and really honored to be the county executive."
Ulman needed some of the money he raised last year to pay debts left from the campaign, but he plans to continue raising more throughout his term, he said.
His annual finance reports filed this month shows that his expenses were hefty, totaling $146,052, which left him $131,259 in the bank as of Jan. 9.
Ulman attracted big contributions from developers, business interests and people who live outside Howard County, while pulling in many smaller contributions from people who bought $20 tickets to fundraising events.
Large contributions included $4,000 from Petrie Ventures LLC of Annapolis, which is planning to develop a mixed-use project at the state's Savage Maryland Rail Commuter service train station, and $1,000 from Bavar Properties Group of Lutherville/Timonium, the firm due to redevelop the former bank building at Thunder Hill Road and Route 175 that housed Ulman's campaign headquarters.
Petrie gave $5,000, but got a $1,000 refund for going over the legal limit.
Ulman picked up $2,000 from Metroventures, the Baltimore firm that Ulman is trying to help by getting the county government to buy $4 million worth of office space in the four-story condominium the firm wants to build at the Oakland Mills Village Center. There also was $22,000 from political action committees, including $6,000 from the Howard County chapter of the Maryland Home Builders Association PAC.
Other contributions came from Beltsville to Sarasota, Fla., as well as from Columbia, Ellicott City and Sykesville. Former county Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr., a former Merdon supporter who owns Land Design and Development in Ellicott City, gave Ulman $1,000.
Ulman said large donors don't get preferential treatment.
"Hopefully, people know that what people give doesn't affect the decisions we make," he said. "The system requires public disclosure so people can weigh all that information in context."
At the other end of the fundraising scale are County Councilwomen Mary Kay Sigaty and Jen Terrasa, Democrats who said they haven't raised any money, though Terrasa plans a $35-per-ticket fundraiser Feb. 29.
"I figure you raise what you're going to need," Sigaty said. "I don't want to go back and back for money if you're not going to need it."
Terrasa said she plans to have two events a year to build a kitty for the next election. Council Chairwoman Courtney Watson, also a Democrat, reported raising $25,010, Councilman Calvin Ball raised $600 but with existing funds has $20,007, while Republican Councilman Greg Fox said he raised $26,500.
Robey, a Democrat who now is a state senator, reported raising $11,078 over the year, though he owes himself $45,000, which he lent his campaign in 2006, he noted. That's one reason he decided not to wait until an election year to raise money, he said.
"It's silly to do that," Robey said. "It's too much pressure on me, on the staff."
Del. Guy Guzzone, a Democrat, has the largest kitty among state legislators, with $47,644 raised and $72,917 on hand, thanks to leftover funds. Democrats from District 13 also have a joint "Team 13" account that raised $29,185, before expenses.
Republicans raised modest amounts, including $25,735 for Kittleman, who was left with a balance of $13,501, and $10,255 for Bates, who has a balance of $14,899, including money left over. Del. Warren E. Miller raised $5,900, but had $8,394 on hand thanks to leftover funds.
Howard County residents are known for their enthusiasm for public affairs, and now there's proof.
Reps. Elijah E. Cummings and John Sarbanes, both Democrats running for re-election in November, told the audience at the African-Americans in Howard County forum Jan. 12 that they get e-mails, letters, phone calls and invitations to events on current issues from their Howard constituents at a rate that is out of proportion with the number of residents they represent.
"When it comes to opinions, the vast majority come from Howard County," Cummings said in a later interview.
Feedback isn't limited to general opinions.
"They come to you with a bill number and talk about one paragraph in a 25-page bill," Cummings said. "I think it's a good thing [because] it means that the Howard County folks are informed, care about what's happening with their government and want to make sure we remain accountable."
Sarbanes made a similar comment and elaborated in a later telephone interview.
"In proportion to the percentage of population [in the district], we get more coming from Howard County," he said. "The detail of the inquiries tends to be pretty high as well."
Sarbanes said all three candidates forums he's received invitations to in the current campaign came from Howard.
About 11 percent of the people in Sarbanes' 3rd District hail from Howard County, where the freshman congressman represents Fulton, East Columbia, Elkridge and parts of Ellicott City. His district also includes parts of Baltimore City and Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties.
For Cummings, less than one-third of his 361,000 constituents in the 7th District are in Howard County, with the rest in Baltimore and western Baltimore County. In Howard, his district covers the entire western county, North Laurel and parts of Ellicott City.
Neither official could provide numbers, because their records don't distinguish between requests for constituent services -- help dealing with government agencies -- from opinions or issue-based inquiries.