Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Howard County executive candidate Trent Kittleman won cheers and applause from a big Republican crowd at a large private home Wednesday night, but they know they'll need support from Democrats and independents to win elected office this year.
Tapping into general public unrest over government spending and debt is the key to victory in November, Republicans believe, which is why Kittleman, a former Ehrlich administration official and a lawyer, is trying to make that issue local as well as national.
She and others feel that the current county executive, Democrat Ken Ulman, is spending too much on cutting-edge health and environmental programs, and not saving enough money for looming, unglamorous county debts, such as retiree health benefits.
"Sometimes, he's just gone overboard" is the feeling, said Louis M. Pope, Republican National Committeeman for Maryland and a former Howard County GOP party chairman. Kittleman said people are concerned about government intrusions into their lives.
"I have never seen real people, the grass roots, so involved until now," Kittleman said. "They are upset. People are starting to understand there's a limit to deficit spending."
"She's really tight with a buck," Ehrlich said about his former deputy transportation secretary and Maryland Transportation Authority director.
Even though Howard County's budget is balanced annually by law and Ulman has said he won't raise taxes next fiscal year despite falling revenues, federal and state debt and higher taxes will affect people in the county too, Kittleman said at her fundraising event.
Kittleman has an opportunity to win, given the national mood, said Donald F. Norris, chairman of Public Policy at the University Of Maryland, Baltimore County.
"The question is whether that [national] scenario is going to play out in the richest county in the country," he added. Given Howard's history of good leadership from both parties and the job Ulman has done so far, Norris said he doubts an upset is likely.
Ulman has said his programs are helping to push Howard County to the national forefront, while just last week winning top AAA credit ratings for conservative fiscal policies from all three New York rating agencies for the 13th consecutive year.
Standing before more than 100 supporters, Kittleman said that the size of county budgets has grown 393 percent over the past 16 years, while population growth has been much slower. Ulman, a former county councilman who won the executive's seat in 2006 with 52 percent of the vote to his GOP rival's 43 percent, has said he expects to seek re-election and talks about trimming spending during the recession.
Kittleman and Ulman agree on one thing.
"Howard County is an incredible place with an extraordinary quality of life," Kittleman said. That's a sentiment Ulman has also frequently expressed.
But she added a caution that Ulman might dispute. "To keep it, we have to change policies. We have to start now."
Ulman and other Democrats argue that to keep Howard's schools, police, parks, libraries and other services No. 1, the county must invest in new classrooms, more officers, new libraries, expanded parks, a new nature center, community centers and transportation improvements.
But Kittleman argues the opposite.
"I don't think government has to do all of that to keep us at the peak," she said after her speech. She did not offer any specifics on what she would change or cut, saying that would come later.
Republicans feel that Kittleman, whose stepson, Allan H. Kittleman, is the Maryland Senate's minority leader, has a well-known name, an engaging, warm manner and enough government experience to attract support across party lines. Still, Ulman has the advantage of incumbency, and is a well-financed, competitive, ambitious young politician who has worked hard in office to connect to the public.
Despite some complaints, the county has gotten high marks for its response to the recent snowstorms, and Ulman constantly trumpets awards and accolades Howard seeks and receives. Last week, the county was declared Maryland's healthiest place to live by a national foundation study.
But the national political unrest is enticing to Republicans.
"People are going to be looking at the economic climate going forward," said former Howard state Sen. Martin G. Madden, who attended Kittleman's event. If she can portray Howard's situation in light of those worries, "I think she'll do very well," Madden said.
Allan Kittleman dismissed the AAA bond rating. "All that means is that Howard County as well as Maryland is willing to tax their citizens to pay for our spending," he said. He scored Ulman earlier in the week for voting for the local income tax increase approved in 2003, after the last recession.
But Republicans have raised taxes in hard times, too. Charles I. Ecker, the last Republican to upset an incumbent Democrat, in 1990, raised the property tax 14 cents his first year in office, and added a $125 trash collection fee in 1996, before cutting the local income tax slightly just before trying a run for governor as he left office in 1998. Republicans would rather focus on his surprise upset victory over incumbent Elizabeth Bobo, a Democrat who is now a state delegate.
Ehrlich hasn't announced his candidacy for governor, though Robert H. Flanagan, his former transportation secretary, seemed to take it as a given at the Kittleman event.
"He is a man of integrity and principle, and I look forward to the second term of Governor Ehrlich," Flanagan told the cheering crowd.
Ulman defended his fiscal policies against Kittleman's criticisms at an appearance Wednesday morning in Oakland Mills, at a breakfast sponsored by the Association of Community Services, an umbrella group of more than 100 human service nonprofits.
"There will be a lot of talk this year about budgets and money," Ulman told the 75 people, noting that his administration increased county grants to nonprofits serving the most vulnerable people from $2.9 million to $4.8 million two years ago, and added another $40,000 for emergency assistance this fiscal year.
He also praised the county's efforts to deal with the snow.
"I have never been more proud and honored to be in this job than what I saw over the last 10 days," he said about the round-the-clock effort by county agencies to work together and solve the weather-related emergencies.
Property tax disclosureA Howard County bill that would have required real estate agents to disclose what the property tax bill would be on a property after sale to a new owner was withdrawn by Del. Frank S. Turner. Turner said county Realtors have agreed on a voluntary disclosure before a sale, though the exact language of the added information hasn't been agreed to.