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Votes

Crowded Election Could Be Referendum on Growth

30 candidates are vying for 9 County Council seats.

Large numbers of challengers have thrown their hats into the ring for local and state office in an election that could become a referendum on growth.

The "End Gridlock Slate," a transportation-focused platform centering on passage of the Inter-County Connector and Montrose Parkway, among other initiatives, helped County Executive Douglas Duncan and five candidates for County Council win four years ago. It could draw a backlash in this election as too "pro-growth," say some analysts.

Some Potomac voters in particular are worried that construction of the Inter-County Connector could pave the way for a "Techway" across the Potomac River into Virginia, which would disrupt large sections of land in Potomac.

"There's a reaction to the direction of the End Gridlock, pro-growth stance," said Gail Ewing, an adjunct professor in political science at Montgomery College. Ewing, who lives in Potomac, and served on the County Council as a Democrat from 1990 to 1998. "People want to slow things down and be more measured" in their stance on growth.

Every state and local office will be on the ballot for the Sept. 12 primary and Nov. 7 general election.

Many Montgomery County residents are also displeased with the lack of county oversight over growth in Clarksburg.

"Who's minding the store?" asked Ewing rhetorically. "The county council is responsible for minding that store — they appoint the planning board and oversee the master plan. It's an indictment of the current council that it happened on their watch."

However, the "referendum on growth" may be more political than substantive. Ewing observed that many of the challengers and incumbents for county council have very similar platforms on growth and other issues.

Trevor Parry-Giles, who lives in Silver Spring, is an associate professor of political communication at the University of Maryland who has been on the Maryland Politics Hour on WAMU, a public radio station based in DC. Parry-Giles also predicts that growth will be a key issue in the upcoming elections, but he said that many issues will trickle down to the local races from state and national political debates.

"The issues facing [gubernatorial candidates] [Robert] Ehrlich and [Martin] O'Malley will filter their way down," he said. "I think the electricity rates issue is an ongoing one, and it fuels the progressive versus establishment dynamic. You also see some of the bigger national issues intruding in things like healthcare."

"Obviously taxes will always be a big issue," said Audra Miller, spokesperson for the Maryland Republican Party. "Taxes continue to go up in the county and services have gone down.

"Also, growth, development and congestion" are top issues, she added. "I think the overwhelming majority of people in Montgomery County are very thankful that after 40 years of stalling, the Inter-County Connector will finally be built."

30 CANDIDATES are vying for nine seats on the County Council, and five are competing for the county executive position. Candidates from Potomac in the County Council election include Democratic at-large challenger Tufail Ahmad and Democratic district 1 challenger Roger Berliner.

At the state senate level, incumbent Sen. Rob Garagiola (D-15) is being challenged by Potomac Republican Bill Askinazi.

In District 15 of the Maryland House of Delegates, three of the six candidates competing for four positions are from Potomac. They include long-time Republican incumbent Jean Cryor, Democratic incumbent Brian Feldman and Republican challenger Brian Mezger.

There are far more Democrats than Republicans running, meaning that the Democratic primary will in many cases reveal the election winner.

Why are so many candidates running?

Ewing said that two council openings explain the long list. Councilmember Steve Silverman (D-at large) is running for county executive, and Councilmember Tom Perez (D-5) is running for state attorney general. She said that the ballot is full in statewide races for the same reason.

"It is so hard to beat an incumbent," she said. "If there's an open seat it's not as hard a row to hoe, and it's easier for a newcomer to succeed."

"I don't get the sense that [the large number of candidates is] because of a lot of discontent," said Ewing. "There are years we have a lot of candidates because people are upset, but I don't feel candidates are lining behind a particular political philosophy. It's more like if you want to be in a position, it's a good time to run."

The large number of candidates, particularly in the at-large County Council races, may prove challenging for politicians and voters alike. Candidates must transcend their local popularity and reach out to voters in other parts of the county.

"The danger is confusion and balkanization," said Parry-Giles. "It's hard [for voters] to get their hands around such a large ballot."

"In Montgomery County there are always a lot of candidates running for office," said David Paulson, spokesperson for the Maryland Democratic Party. "I think we are at an age when more and more people are focused on public policy.... After six years of George Bush we are seeing people hoping to take matters into their own hands and work within the system for change."

Paulson believes that Democrats in Montgomery County are used to facing numerous challengers from within their own party.

"The Democrats are largely in agreement on most issues," he said. "They're looking for those differences that can translate into votes on election day. If you’ve got a lot of Democrats who are in general in agreement on most of the issues, you have to form a campaign strategy try to meet as many voters face to face as you possibly can in order to build trust and confidence."

Having contentious primaries on the Democratic side will benefit Republican candidates, said Miller.

"We’ve taken a very strategic approach," she said. "We could have very easily put someone up in every district, but we decided we’d like to be smarter with our resources and instead provide solid, quality candidates with solid ideas who are known for their background and in their communities. They'll be concentrating fully on the people of the district" whose votes are sometimes taken for granted by the Democratic Party, she said.

What is the likelihood of large-scale turnover?

"It's very hard to beat an incumbent because they have media attention and their names have become household words," said Ewing. "I wouldn't be surprised if one or two go, but it will be the exception, not the rule."

County Executive Duncan's unexpected exit from the top of the ticket race could depress voter turnout in Montgomery County, Parry-Giles said. Duncan recently ended his candidacy for governor after being diagnosed with clinical depression.

"In the [U.S.] Senate primary on the Democratic side, [Potomac businessman] Josh Rales is an interesting candidate," he said. "He's spending a lot of money on ads and jacking up his name recognition. The extent to which that will affect turnout [in Montgomery County] will be interesting, and then that would affect all the County Council candidates."

ARE REPUBLICANS in Montgomery County likely to make gains in this year's election?

"No, absolutely not," said Paulson, the Democrat. "They talk a good game and they’ll have lots of money, but I think the voters of Maryland are rejecting Republicans in large part because of what they’ve done to the issues that are important to most Marylanders" such as the environment, educational funding, the war in Iraq, healthcare and the response to Hurricane Katrina.

The Republican side had other ideas.

"We believe that we’ve got great candidates," said Miller, the Republican. "They’re being aggressive campaigners and putting themselves out there and making sure they meet the people and learn what their issues are. We don’t take anything for granted, and we particularly don’t take for granted that this is a strongly Democratic county."