After a dozen years with the same majority on the Howard County Council, the terms of four of the five members are ending and more than a dozen candidates are running in this month’s district primaries.
Democrats Mary Kay Sigaty, Jen Terrasa and Calvin Ball and Republican Greg Fox will leave their council seats in December. Democrat Jon Weinstein is the lone council member not facing term limits and seeking re-election.
Four of the five districts have primary races.
In District 1, Weinstein faces one Democratic challenger, Liz Walsh.
District 2 has two candidates, Republican John Liao and Democrat Opel Jones, who are uncontested in the primary.
Four Democrats, Christiana Rigby, Greg Jennings, Hiruy Hadgu and Steve Hunt are vying for the nomination in District 3. There are no Republicans running.
In District 4, Democrats Janet Siddiqui, Deb Jung and Ian Bradley Moller-Knudsen are seeking the nomination. Republican Lisa Kim is unopposed in the primary.
District 5, a typical Republican stronghold, is the only district with a Republican primary between Woodbine Republican David Yungmann and Woodbine Republican Jim Walsh
In a county that is often lauded for its good schools and high quality of life, it can be difficult for candidates, especially Democratic ones, to distinguish themselves from one another, said Donald F. Norris, a professor emeritus of public policy at University of Maryland, Baltimore County and a longtime Columbia resident.
One issue that could do the job: development.
Lisa Markovitz, president of the political organization The People’s Voice, said the issue was already on many people’s minds following a contentious school redistricting process last fall and the passage of an update to the county’s infrastructure and development regulations in February.
Development took center stage last month after the second deadly flood in two years struck Ellicott City, a disaster some are blaming on runoff caused by growth, both commercial and residential.
The issue is more likely to affect the council race than county executive or state gubernatorial or legislative races, Markovitz said, because the council serves as the Zoning Board, responsible for approving development projects.
“[Voters are] going to lean toward people they think are going to address these issues in the most objective, fair, way,” Markovitz said. “And if they think people are overly influenced by developers that’s going to make a difference.
“Everybody who has their finger on making any decision that’s going to help with development going slower or faster or can approve it not happening in the [Ellicott City] watershed for a while, people are going to resonate with that,” she said.
The People’s Voice surveyed council candidates, asking a range of questions about county issues including development, education and political ethics. The more than 2,000-member organization endorses candidates based on the questionnaire, campaign finance reports, voting records and publicized positions.
Markovitz said voters will want to know how council members will deal with development in the Ellicott City watershed. The same goes for the county executive race, in which Democratic councilman Calvin Ball is the presumptive frontrunner to face incumbent Republican Allan Kittleman.
“It’s going to be very important to Kittleman how he addresses fixing problems that are current and long held before he got in office,” she said. “He’s got several months before November to inform his constituents about his plans.”
Joanne Drielak, a political science professor at Howard Community College, said while last month’s flood and development may not necessarily change which candidates voters support, it will almost certainly come up between candidates heading from the primary into the general election.
What Drielak is less sure of is if many voters understand the time it takes to make development decisions and that it’s a years-long process and some project reviews and approvals began before Kittleman took office.
“I think it depends, some people have an understanding that development is done over years of a process and some people will look at just the face that they see and say, ‘how can let this happen?” Drielak said.
Norris disagreed. He doesn’t believe that by November, the flood will be a major campaign issue.
Beyond flooding and development, one issue that Drielak thinks could permeate races is how to stop human trafficking, a problem in the Route 1 corridor in recent years.
“There’s been a little more coverage of that, it’s been brought up by officials on occasion, the police department has acknowledged that and talked about what they’ve been trying to do,” she said. “The victims are young and it really can pull on anyone’s heart strings.”
Early voting starts Thursday at four locations in Howard County. Elections officials have prepared the county’s voting machines and facilities for the primary’s 90 voting sites on June 26.
Howard County Board of Elections Director Guy Mickley said preparations for the primary have been relatively quiet compared to other gubernatorial years. Requests for absentee ballots are down by half this year compared to other gubernatorial primaries, with only 700 requests compared to the usual 1,500, Mickley said.
To give a sense of how many people may vote in the June election, in the 2014 primary election, the most crowded race was in District 1, where Weinstein won against three Democratic challengers with 1,643 votes. Howard County residents vote only for the council race in their district.
At the countywide level, in 2014 the Democratic candidate Courtney Watson ran uncontested and received 21,469 votes in the primary.
Primary elections tend to have between 28 percent and 35 percent voter turnout in Howard County, according to Mickley, which this year he’s anticipating to be closer to 28 percent.
Early voting continues through June 21 and is available in Howard County at the Bain 50+ Center, the Howard County fairgrounds, the Miller Branch library and the Ridgely’s Run Community Center. Voters can find their election day polling place online through the Maryland Board of Elections website. Polls are open on election day from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.