Alan Klein's effort to unseat fellow Democrat Mary Kay Sigaty from her west Columbia Howard County Council seat began with a songfest/fundraiser at Kahler Hall in Harper's Choice Monday evening.
Klein, the spokesman for the Coalition for Columbia's Downtown, a group critical of the amount of new development the downtown plan allows, drew about 50 people who listened to a few speeches and sang a few folk songs. The group included four of the 10 Columbia Association board members, and Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Democrat who repeated that she's not endorsing Klein, though she likes his ideas. "I go to a lot of fundraisers," she said. Three of the four attending CA board members represent Wilde Lake, Harper's Choice and River Hill, which are all within Sigaty's District 4 boundaries.
The Sept. 14 primary between the two former allies is perhaps the hottest early race in the county, and reflects the split over the downtown Columbia redevelopment plan unanimously approved by the council Feb. 1. Bobo, who also represents West Columbia in the General Assembly, faces her own primary election battle with former Republican John Bailey, who, like Sigaty, also favors the heavily amended General Growth Properties inspired redevelopment plan, which calls for up to 5,500 new homes, and nearly 6 million square feet of commercial and office/hotel space in Town Center over three decades.
Klein and his backers feel the approved plan is too intense for Columbia's central core, while Sigaty and her supporters feel the plan, studied and then changed by the council, provides the right impetus and safeguards to reinvigorate a stagnant area that has never really become a downtown.
Sigaty and Bailey both attended a Columbia 43rd birthday celebration at the Lakefront June 23 sponsored by four pro-GGP plan groups that drew both Democrats and some Republicans, including Trent Kittleman, the Republican candidate for county executive, and Diana Ulman, Democratic county executive Ken Ulman's mother. Sigaty has backing from most elected Democrats in the county, including Ulman, plus the pro-business community that Bailey is also trying to attract. District 4 covers West Columbia including River Hill and Hickory Ridge, Wilde Lake, Town Center and Harper's Choice, and Fulton on the south.
Sigaty said at the celebration that she had no qualms about mixing with Republicans, given the reason for the outdoor party. "The health and revitalization of downtown Columbia is an entire county event," Sigaty said. "I like celebrating Columbia." She said she couldn't imagine why Klein didn't come. More than 50 people attended, though organizers said the extreme heat that day kept many away. Democratic central committee member Bill Woodcock also attended, as did former planning board member and county council candidate Joan Lancos, who has, like Bailey, switched her party registration from Republican to Democrat.
"This year we're filled with hope for Columbia's future," said Tom O'Connor, a former CA board chairman who also attended.
Monday evening, Klein said, "Supporting Mary Kay is one of the things I regretted over time, because I don't think we've been well-served." He called the week-long planning charrette for downtown Columbia that Ulman helped organize in 2005 a "charade."
"What the community said we wanted is almost nowhere to be found or assured," he said. Although reluctant to run for public office, Klein said his policy disagreements with Sigaty demand that he does.
"This is not a personal thing," he said. "Ms. Sigaty is a nice enough person and she works hard, but that's not enough." His yard signs should start appearing very soon, he said, and he will be knocking on doors in a low-budget campaign as he continues running his private consulting business, which occasionally requires out-of-town travel.
Klein said that if elected, he realizes "I would be only one vote. I hope there are other members of the council who, if they have some support, would be voting to stand up." He and his backers feel that the plan the council approved gave GGP too much of what company officials wanted at the expense of existing residents.
"There's an appetite in this county for something other than feeding big out-of-state corporations everything they want," said Klein supporter Jay Bonstingl.
"With your help, we're going to make it work. We're going to win in September," Klein told his supporters.
Can a former Bush administration spokesman be effective at bashing Democrats for being big spenders who have created an unsustainable national debt?
That's the role Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush's first spokesman, took on as the Howard County Republicans' featured speaker at a well-attended fundraising dinner in Clarksville for Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the former Republican battling to take back his old job from Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley. The dinner June 23 raised more than $100,000 for Ehrlich's campaign and attracted about 275 people, according to party chairwoman Joan Becker.
According to Fleischer, Democrats are spending both the nation and Maryland into future poverty, though he made no mention of his former boss' deficit spending habits or the Bush administration's private financial system bailout known as TARP that Republicans now criticize. Although President Barack Obama, a Democrat, has been criticized by some in his own party for being a pragmatist too willing to back policies they deem too close to those of Bush's, Fleischer's rhetoric told a different story.
"We're witnessing a titanic collision between two ideologies," Fleischer said, after paying tribute to ex-President Bush by saying that "I loved advocating for someone I believed in then and I believe in now."
"They seek to grow the government and make the people pay," Fleischer said about Obama and O'Malley. "The losers are America's and Maryland's middle class." He referred to "reckless spending sprees" in both Washington and Annapolis.
Republicans, stung by losing control of Congress in 2006 and losing the presidential race in 2008, don't invoke the name "Bush" much this election year, but Fleischer defended his own credibility after his speech.
"I'm not here to look at the past," he said on his way out of Ten Oaks Ballroom and on his way to appear on "Larry King Live" on CNN. "I'm here to look at the future." Bush, he said, is "old news."
Obama's performance was labeled "European-style form of socialism that runs counter to our values" by Ehrlich, who spoke after Fleischer.
Ehrlich acknowledged in his own remarks that Republicans have also spent too freely, but said "These folks [Democrats] make us look like the JV [junior varsity]." Becker later called Fleischer "a good spokesman for the conservative message."
Howard County Democratic party chairman Michael C.A. McPherson sharply disagreed, arguing that his party's elected officials are trying to "untangle fiscal messes" left by Republicans.
"It's appalling that a group of so-called fiscal conservatives invite the spokesperson of the most spendthrift national administration in the history of the nation to criticize the Obama and O'Malley administrations," he said.
Ehrlich made two stops in Howard County within a week, building excitement among the party faithful. The second event was a picnic on a sweltering Sunday at the Ellicott City VFW Hall behind Veteran's Elementary school. More than 100 people gathered for four hours, and Ehrlich appeared with his entire family around 5 p.m.
Why the frequent appearances among Republicans who will back him anyway?
"It's about those people getting energized and getting out [to work]" said Del. Gail H. Bates, gesturing to the crowd sheltered from the sun under a wooden pavilion. "We need to get them charged up," she said.
"We got a lot of volunteers this way," said Ed Priola, a Republican candidate for House of Delegates in District 13, covering the southeastern county.
Hannelore and Bill Tye, retirees in their 70s who live along Route 108 on Columbia's northern border, attended the picnic and sat perspiring in white Ehrlich campaign T-shirts. Both are Republicans, they said, but neither has volunteered or been politically active before.
"I'm like Obama, I want change," said Hannelore Tye, 72. They watch Fox television personality Glenn Beck, they said, and plan to work for Ehrlich's election. "I think we're being spent into hell," said Bill Tye, a former engineer.
Ehrlich's remarks were from his standard stump remarks, but they still brought the crowd to its feet, cheering loudly.
"Do ya feel it?" Ehrlich asked to cheers. "Everywhere we go, the crowds are larger," he added, reminding his supporters again that "as Howard County goes, the state goes." Ehrlich won in Howard in 2002 but lost narrowly in the county in 2006, leading politicians to see it as a swing county that reflects statewide trends.