This column by Len Lazarick appears in the September issue of The Business Monthly serving Howard and Anne Arundel counties.
Allan Kittleman would love to be Howard County executive again. So would current County Executive Calvin Ball. To achieve Republican Kittleman’s ambition he must defeat the same Democrat who thwarted his hope for a second term four years ago.
All things being equal, a county exec who hasn’t upset a majority of constituents should win a second term. By that rule of thumb, Kittleman probably should have won in 2018. He got 14,000 more votes than he did in 2014 in defeating Democrat Courtney Watson.
Problem was, all things were not equal in 2018. There was the blue wave. Democrats outraged by President Trump turned out in droves and voted for every Democrat on the ballot – except for Republican Gov. Larry Hogan.
Ball, a three-term county council member, beat Kittleman by CORRECTION 8,000 votes. Riding the huge Democratic turnout, Ball got 25,000 more votes than Watson did against Kittleman in 2014, a gain of 50%.
Surprisingly, without any polling data to support his dim view of Ball’s tenure, Kittleman got into the race last year and has spent much of the time trying to persuade the populace that Ball has done a crummy job. It’s a bit of a role switch for the typically mild-mannered and sunny Kittleman, a libertarian conservative who tends to look on the bright side of things.
Kittleman turned up the negative at a Howard County Chamber of Commerce forum Aug. 16, repeating the same charges he has made throughout the campaign.
- Crime is up in Howard County, people feel unsafe, and Ball has demoralized the police force. Ball has the backing of the police and fire unions, but not the rank and file, says Kittleman, who has the endorsement of several former police chiefs. Ball has removed school resource officers from the middle schools too.
- Ball has also supported the school superintendent’s move to shift students in public schools based on social demographic factors, busing some students away from their “neighborhood schools” where they belong, says Kittleman.
- Ball has raised taxes, such as the fire tax, resulting in a surplus that should be returned to taxpayers. He shows up at ribbon cuttings for new businesses, but his office is unresponsive to business owners who call.
- The Ball administration is paying fines and attorney fees in a lawsuit where Ball’s CORRECTION: administrative aid
deputy chief of staff– who was also also being paid by his campaign – turned down legitimate requests for emails sent by a developer attorney.
- Ball is taking money from big donors, while Kittleman is relying on the new public financing that matches county funds to small campaign contributions.
This last charge is the most ironic. As county executive, Kittleman vetoed the public campaign financing bill co-sponsored by council member Ball because it required funding from taxpayer dollars. Now Ball is benefitting from the major contributions from developers and county contractors that incumbent executives get– as Kittleman once did—and has $865,000 in his campaign account.
Kittleman, whose veto was overridden, conceded: “I didn’t realize how great a program it was.” As to getting money from taxpayers who might not support a candidate, “I don’t think there’s any other way to do it,” Kittleman said.
Ball doesn’t take the bait on most of Kittleman’s charges. He is clearly annoyed about the claim of lack transparency on the denied emails that showed no apparent wrongdoing. Ball calls it a “political stunt” by a former Republican official that wasted thousands of dollars and was part of Kittleman “supporters weaponizing the Public Information Act,” flooding the executive’s office with requests.
Howard County schools are “some of the best in the nation” and Ball has provided them over $1 billion in record funding, as well as curing the school system’s health fund deficit. And those SROs are now in all the high schools, not the minority of middle schools that felt targeted. Ball also notes that Kittleman sought the police union endorsement last time that he finds “meaningless” now.
Development permits have gone down 70% and Ball has put forward a plan that shows “we are making progress on affordable housing.”
Ball is particularly proud of Howard County’s response to the Covid pandemic, with one of the highest vaccination rates in the nation. He touts solar energy projects, energy-saving LEDs in all the streetlights, enhanced forest protection and “historic investment in road resurfacing.”
Lack of media
How much of this is resonating with Howard County voters? How could it? There are few reporters covering Howard County government and politics, far fewer reporters and media than there were 20 years ago when there were 80,000 fewer residents here. Facebook posts are no substitute for real reporters.
Both Ball and Kittleman privately bemoan the lack of coverage. Ball’s media folks put out a positive press release almost every day on projects and programs big and small. Much as there is little coverage of the things that go wrong in county government — the stories Kittleman likes to highlight — there is little reporting on the good things that go right. Stories and columns in a monthly business newspaper are significant but they can’t replace the daily and weekly barrage of journalism by knowledgeable reporters and editors who knew the turf back in the day.
Kittleman’s public financing can hardly fund the kind of massive advertising campaign that would publicize his charges against Ball.
On top of that, Ball pointed out that Kittleman has spent so much energy telling voters “what is always going wrong” that he has offered little positive vision of what he would do in a second term. With the help of federal Covid spending and a booming property assessment base, Ball is promising more of what he’s delivered for four years.