Will Howard County go red or blue? Voters see spirited campaign for county executive

For years, the defining issue in Howard County politics has been education — specifically, the direction of the district’s top-flight school system.

But as Republican County Executive Allan Kittleman faces a spirited challenge from Democratic Councilman Calvin Ball, another issue of great importance has emerged in this year’s campaign: the deadly flooding that ravaged historic Ellicott City twice within two years.

As Howard voters head to the polls this November, they won’t just be deciding which candidate is best equipped to lead one of the country’s wealthiest counties and properly fund its vaunted school system. They’ll also be deciding who is best to keep people in the old mill town from encountering destruction again.

“We’re on the front lines yelling, ‘We’ve got to make some moves,’ ” says Debra Ann Slack Katz, who chairs the county’s Flood Workgroup. “We’ve studied and studied and studied. Now it’s time to act.”

A swing jurisdiction that’s had two Democrats and two Republicans as county executives since 1990, Howard County often mirrors the sentiment of Maryland as a whole — and political observers are watching the Kittleman-Ball race for signs of trends.

Like the state, Democrats lead Republicans in voter registration by 2 to 1 in Howard. But county voters have shown an openness to GOP candidates, particularly in off-year elections such as this one.

Four years ago, when Republican Gov. Larry Hogan upset then-Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown in the governor’s race, Hogan carried Howard County by the same percentage as he did the state: 51 percent to 47 percent. Kittleman edged Democratic county councilwoman Courtney Watson by a similar margin, 51 percent to 49 percent.

Hailing from a well-known political family, Kittleman has a large campaign warchest, but he could encounter the “blue wave” many pundits predict will sweep the nation in November amid concerns over the presidency of Republican Donald Trump.

“It’s a swing county,” said Todd Eberly, a political scientist at St. Mary's College of Maryland. “If this were a different world and you had Hillary Clinton in the White House or a normal Republican, you would see an incumbent like Kittleman in a demonstrably safe position. But Donald Trump is the president, Democrats are incredibly motivated to vote and that’s a real threat to any Republican in the state.”

If he wins re-election, Kittleman would be among just a handful of Republicans best positioned to seek the party’s nomination for governor in 2022. A Ball victory would place him among rising stars on the Democratic side.

“If Kittleman carries it, it will mean efforts to nationalize the election in Maryland didn’t work,” Eberly said. “Everything that’s Maryland-specific looks really good for Maryland Republicans in this cycle.

“But you move beyond the state and it’s God-awful for Republicans this cycle. The question is: Can the Chesapeake Bay withstand the blue wave?”

Kittleman and Ball have engaged in a fierce fundraising competition, making the Howard County contest one of the highest-dollar races in the state.

Kittleman has nearly $700,000 in cash on hand, while Ball has nearly $400,000 — more than his party’s gubernatorial nominee Ben Jealous.

Among Kittleman’s biggest contributions is $6,000 from the firefighters union,while Ball received a maximum donation from the Baltimore Washington Construction & Public Employees Laborers PAC.

“It’s a competitive race,” says Roger Caplan, a longtime observer of county politics who runs the communications firm The Caplan Group. “You really do have two solid candidates from both parties who are seasoned elected officials. Calvin has been on the council for three terms and Allan was born and raised in this business.”

The race also is significant because it will decide who is leading the rebuilding effort in Ellicott City.

For the second time in less than two years, a rapid river of stormwater runoff ripped through Main Street in May, damaging dozens of businesses and cars and killing Sgt. Eddison “Eddie” A. Hermond, a National Guardsman who tried to rescue a local shop owner.

In 2016, another intense storm ripped through Ellicott City's historic downtown, killing Jessica Watsula of Lebanon, Pa., and Joseph Anthony Blevins of Windsor Mill and causing massive destruction. John Peter Pacylowski Jr. of Columbia later died from a fall while working behind a business on flood-ravaged Main Street.

Kittleman has put forth an ambitious, $50 million plan to tear down at least 19 buildings and expand waterways in Ellicott City to mitigate flooding and save lives if another devastating storm cascades through the historic mill town.

Ball has pledged to fund flood mitigation work at greater levels and criticized Kittleman for not taking the threat from climate change and over-development more seriously early in his term.

The flooding was front and center this week as Kittleman and Ball squared off during a campaign forum in Turf Valley hosted by the Howard County Chamber of Commerce.

Ball reminded the crowd that Kittleman had sought to repeal the county’s stormwater remediation fee — derided by the state’s GOP as the “rain tax” — but was stopped by Democratic lawmakers.

“Climate change demands a new way of doing things,” Ball said. “One of the first things Allan did was try to get rid of the rain tax. …We need to invest in the things that matter.”

Kittleman counters that he is the first county executive to take the flooding issue seriously. He said for more than a century county leaders kicked the can down the road, ignoring flood after flood, rather than radically changing Ellicott City.

“It was a clarion call to all of us,” Kittleman said of this year’s flooding. “I know some people are upset with the plan that Councilman [Jon] Weinstein and I put together. … We need to save lives. We lost four lives. Nobody else should die. Now is the time.”

The other major issue in the race is education. Typically considered one of the best school districts in the state, Howard County’s class sizes are now rising. The system suffered, many say, from the contentious, dysfunctional relationship between its elected school board and former superintendent Renee Foose, who was given a $1.6 million package last year to step down from the post.

During the debate at Turf Valley, Ball cast the school system as in decline and argued he would do a better job than Kittleman to work with the school board to turn it around.

Ball pointed to the June findings of the non-partisan Operation Budget Review Committee, which released a report that included a section entitled: “Our School System in Crisis.”

“With a projected structural deficit of $50 million and deferred maintenance exceeding $500 million, our school system is in financial crisis,” the report said. “The consequences of this underfunding are larger class sizes, deferred cost-saving investments, turnover of faculty and staff, reduced morale and declining reputation of our school system.”

Ball said Kittleman has blamed the school board — an independent wing of government — and Foose for these problems instead of taking large enough steps to fix them.

“We need a leader who is less focused on blaming and more focused on saying the buck stops with me,” Ball said. “The county executive should be the CEO and the leader of our county.”

Kittleman said he intervened in the school system’s dysfunction by mediating Foose’s exit and working closely with new superintendent Michael J. Martirano.

“Has our prior Board of Education and our prior superintendent handled our funding wisely? No. They did not,” Kittleman told the crowd. “Because of their neglect, we have a $50 million deficit.”

But Kittleman said he believes Martirano has put the system back on the right track.

“The biggest change is having new leadership,” Kittleman said. “Dr. Martirano has made a difference."

Kittleman, 60, a lawyer from West Friendship, has held elective office for 20 years, including as a councilman and state senator before becoming county executive.

Though a Republican, Kittleman bills himself as a “independent leader” who stresses bi-partisanship. He’s the son of the late Robert Kittleman, the former state senator and local NAACP president who pushed for the desegregation of the county’s schools.

Kittleman’s endorsements include Republican Gov. Larry Hogan; Councilman Weinstein, a Democrat; and all of the county’s public safety unions.

Ball, 43, of Columbia, has served on the Howard County Council for 12 years, including a stint as its chairman. He is the director of Complete College Baltimore, a program that works to bolster graduation rates at Baltimore City Community College.

Ball has been endorsed by the Howard County Education Assocation, the union for public school teachers and other educators.

Colleen Morris, president of the teachers union, said her organization is supporting Ball over Kittleman because members believe the Democrat has been a bigger supporter of education.

Morris said Ball has fought Kittleman over the years for more funding for the county’s schools.

“I think our endorsement carries weight,” Morris said. “Our community values educators. Many times they will take an apple ballot over other literature.”

Kittleman and Ball also clashed over the councilman’s legislation — which Kittleman vetoed — to declare Howard County a “sanctuary” county that would not cooperate with the Trump administration to deport undocumented immigrants.

Ball said the legislation was needed to ensure Howard is a welcoming community and assuage fears of local police among immigrants. Kittleman said Ball unnecessarily created “a tremendous controversy in our county and divided our county.”

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