Democrats, Republicans have hopes for clean sweep in crowded race for House district in Baltimore County

For nearly three decades, voters in northeastern Baltimore County have sent a mix of Democrats and Republicans to Annapolis to form a “purple” district in the House of Delegates.

This year, both parties believe they have a chance to pull the district to their side, and have put up teams of candidates that mix new faces and experienced politicians.

“It’s a very competitive district. It could go either way,” says Del. Joe Cluster, a Republican who is one of two incumbents in the three-member 8th legislative district.

The other is Democratic Del. Eric Bromwell, who says the district’s history shows voters want delegates who can work together, even if they’re from different parties.

“I’ve proven I can work with everyone,” Bromwell said. “I think that’s expected of us.”

The Baltimore County district includes neighborhood such as Parkville, Overlea, Rosedale, Perry Hall, White Marsh and Nottingham. Democrats hold a registration advantage in that area, with nearly 54 percent of the registered voters, compared to about 27 percent Republican and 19 percent unaffiliated or members of third parties, according to state data.

Republicans currently hold the advantage in representation; the district’s third House seat is held by Republican Del. Christian Miele, though he is running for state Senate this year instead.

The GOP believes it can hold its advantage and even sweep the district, perhaps like the neighboring 6th district in Dundalk and Essex did four years ago, when it flipped from all Democrat to all Republican representatives in the House. The Republican candidates in the 8th district also are hoping the popularity of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan will rub off on them.

Republicans say they are offering a team of “Average Joes” — Cluster, former delegate Joe Boteler and political newcomer Joe Norman — candidates who have embraced their common first name and formed an Average Joes Victory Slate.

Boteler, 69, served three terms in the House of Delegates, but lost four years ago after redistricting placed his Carney residence in a different district. He has since moved to Perry Hall and is back in his old district. He said he’s concerned about the continued growth of the state budget and questions whether money for schools is spent appropriately.

“I’m a very conservative guy, and I’ve been concerned about the Republican Party and the loss of conservatives within the party,” he said. “A lot of the new spending is on social programs and things like that, and I think we have to rein that in.”

Norman, 35, said he was inspired to run because he was “dissatisfied with the direction our state and community were heading. Too much one-party control. I don’t think that there’s enough back-and-forth or enough collaboration between the two parties, and the only way to fix that is to restore some balance.”

Norman said his priority is redistricting reform so that congressional and state legislative districts are drawn by a nonpartisan commission. He acknowledges the issue doesn’t excite many voters, but he has others: He wants to focus on school issues, including making sure state spending for education is well invested and strengthening student discipline.

Cluster, 39, was appointed to his seat by Hogan in 2016. He replaced his father, John Cluster, who resigned to take a position on the state parole board.

A Parkville resident, Cluster said he wants to work on juvenile crime and keeping schools safe.

“I’m a true believer in the governor and I feel he needs people down there who will support him,” he said.

The Democrats are putting forward a ticket of Bromwell, Carl Jackson and Harry Bhandari.

Jackson, a 34-year-old from Rosedale, said he was inspired to run by former President Barack Obama, who called upon people to get involved in politics. “I decided to put myself forward to be the change I wanted to see,” said Jackson.

He has a list of priority issues: funding for schools, involving retired police officers and veterans in school security, addressing school bullying, lowering costs for prescription drugs, educating people about the dangers of opioids and helping small business.

Jackson also thinks he brings a useful perspective as an African-American candidate in an area that’s currently represented only by white politicians.

“I know I can bring people together,” he said.

Bhandari, 41, is mounting his second attempt at gaining a seat in the House; he ran and lost in 2014.

He says he has lived the American dream: An immigrant from Nepal, he was an educator in that country and worked at a gas station when he moved to the United States at age 25. He’s now a city school teacher living in Nottingham.

“I’m so very humbled for the tremendous opportunity I got from this country and community, and I want to pay that debt,” he said.

Bhandari said he wants to improve school facilities, address vacant homes, lower drug prices and empower people — including immigrants — to get involved in government.

Bromwell was first elected in 2002 and said he wants to return to Annapolis to work on issues such as fighting the opioid epidemic, improving the business climate and keeping taxes low.

The 41-year-old says he’s a Democrat who can work with Republicans to find common ground. He chaired a work group that developed bills to expand opioid treatment and education that gained bipartisan support.

Bromwell, who is white, said he’s excited to run on a ticket with two people of color.

“It’s an interesting dynamic and, quite frankly, I think it’s a good snapshot for the people that we represent,” Bromwell said. “I think the diversity in our ticket is the same diversity we see in our district.”

pwood@baltsun.com

twitter.com/pwoodreporter

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