Matt Farrragut of Harper's Choice likes his county councilwoman, Mary Kay Sigaty, and his state delegate, Elizabeth Bobo, both of whom are running for re-election in Howard County's only two Democratic primaries, in districts that overlap across much of West Columbia.
But Sigaty and Bobo disagree on one of the biggest issues in the area: the 30-year downtown Columbia redevelopment plan. Farrragut, 29, declined to discuss it.
"I don't want to get into the downtown," Farragut, a professional landscaper and son of former County Councilman Paul Farragut, said after a fond greeting and chat with Sigaty as she knocked on doors in Hickory Ridge on a recent Saturday.
Democratic voters in the two overlapping districts — where the Democratic nominee is traditionally elected — may be excused for having a tough time figuring out whom to support and why in this year's Sept. 14 primary. Both districts include Town Center Columbia, as well as Wilde Lake, Harper's Choice and Hickory Ridge. Sigaty's district goes west to include River Hill and south to Fulton, while Bobo's is less expansive, including small parts of Dorsey's Search and Ellicott City.
Sigaty, who led the County Council to a unanimous 5-0 vote Feb. 1 that approved the heavily amended 30-year downtown plan, is facing Alan Klein, leader of a citizens group that feels the plan allows too many new homes and will produce untenable traffic congestion. Sigaty says the council added plenty of protections for the public.
She's in trouble with voters like Eva Skrenta, 68, who lives in Sigaty's Wilde Lake neighborhood, and said she's still studying the candidates and issues. "I'm a news freak," Skrenta said, embarrassed at her dining-room table piled with newspapers. "She's a nice lady, a neighbor," Skrenta said about Sigaty, but "I think a lot of what Alan Klein says," and she's leaning toward voting for him.
But Anne Schmidt, 55, of Hickory Ridge didn't make the connection between Sigaty and the downtown plan when Sigaty encountered her unloading groceries in her driveway and, smiling, asked for her vote. Schmidt knows Sigaty and likes her, she said, but feels the downtown plan allows far too much development. "Traffic is already pretty intense," Schmidt said in answer to a reporter's question after Sigaty walked away.
Bobo, who agrees with Klein and is advising the novice candidate in his first run for elective office, faces a challenge from John Bailey of Hickory Ridge, a teacher, village board member and former Republican who likes the downtown plan. Bobo says she and Klein want change and new life in Columbia's downtown, just not 5,500 new homes and urban streets jammed with vehicles.
Bailey's challenge is unfamiliar turf for Bobo, who has had few challengers from either party in her single-delegate district.
If all that weren't confusing enough, Sigaty this year has strong backing from County Executive Ken Ulman, another Democrat who formerly held the same County Council seat, and beat Sigaty in the 2002 Democratic primary by just 36 votes. Four years ago, when she ran again and won the seat, Josh Feldmark, an Ulman ally, ran against her but lost the primary.
"I've always had primary opposition," the cheerful former school board member and artist said. There is a big, positive difference for her this year, though. "I'm an incumbent. I've never been that before," she said. Now she's got backing from other Democrats, some of whom, like Ulman and State Sen. James N. Robey, opposed her before. She also has support from the business community, and from advocates of the downtown redevelopment project.
"I'm trying to build support in areas that went with Josh last time," she said. "Part of what this is all about," she said about the door-to-door campaigning, "is getting a sense of what people are thinking on this street." Often, she said, people bring up very local annoyances or problems rather than big issues like the downtown. She did well with Maria Esqueloa, 44, of Hickory Ridge, who greeted her warmly and said, "You're doing a good job." She said later she likes the downtown plan too.
Klein has won an endorsement from the county's chapter of the Sierra Club, a group the environmentally minded Bobo, who is also a former county executive, is also popular with. The club pointedly endorsed the other three Democrats on the council, except for Sigaty. That support could play well among West Columbia's liberal Democrats.
Meanwhile, Bailey is working hard trudging from door to door, trying to eat into the giant name recognition advantage Bobo has built over her long career as a County Council member, county executive and the last 16 years in the General Assembly. Still, many don't pay close attention.
Gerald Mayes, 60, of Wilde Lake took a brochure and a greeting from Bailey as he returned home from work. He couldn't recall offhand who his state delegate is, though he recognized Bobo's name when he heard it. Laid off from two jobs over the past decade, he's not so worried about local politics, he said.
Bailey thinks having two competitive primaries will help him by drawing more people to the polls in a district where voters are traditionally well informed. He's out every morning sign-waving and most evenings and weekends in running shoes and his blue campaign polo shirt, knocking on doors.
"This is a huge, huge uphill battle for me," Bailey acknowledged during a recent tour in Wilde Lake. Younger people are moving into the area, he said, and he feels they see the future more as he does and may feel it's time for a change. "Before, there was no reason for them to come out to vote." But the twin primaries could boost turnout, he said.
Klein, who is the first to admit he's not a natural at politics, got a late start, announcing his run late in May, and even with less than six weeks to go is occasionally out of town earning a living as a consultant, which cuts into precious campaigning time. He believes the majority of District 4 council voters agree with him that the downtown plan allows developers too much, and not with Sigaty that the council included enough safeguards to protect the public interest.
"If I can get my name out there and get the record known," he said, he believes he'll win. That's where fundraising comes in, he said. He's got enough for yard signs and brochures, but direct mail blasts to homes is expensive.
Whoever wins the two primaries will face Republicans Tom D'Asto for council and Robert W. Wheatley for delegate.
Republicans running for General Assembly seats in District 13 covering the southeastern county also have a primary election, but it doesn't involve the incumbents, who are all Democrats.
Kyle Lorton and Jody Venkatesan are battling for the GOP nomination for state Senate opposing Robey, and four candidates, Ed Priola, Jeff Robinson, J'Neanne Theus and Loretta Gaffney, are vying for three Republican nominations for House of Delegates seats held by Democrats Guy Guzzone, Frank S. Turner and Shane E. Pendergrass.