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September 16, 2005

Election Donnybrook

Roy Meachum

In all the years in this trade, I’ve never witnessed an election like this week’s Frederick mayoral races – notice the plural ending. The Republican contest figured to be a shoo-in.

When former city engineer Jeff Holtzinger challenged three-term incumbent Joe Baldi, I thought – and said so here – that the political newcomer stood little chance, primarily because his name was little known. I was wrong.

With all eyes on the Democratic donnybrook between incumbent Mayor Jennifer Dougherty and former Mayor Ron Young, over 80 percent of Frederick’s registered Republicans decided to stay away from the polls. Those who showed up were obviously from the city’s Republican core where Mr. Holtzinger received enough recognition to squeeze by.

In his favor Joe Baldi enjoyed a reputation as a nice guy, noted for his flexibility on matters that mattered most to local residents. That flexibility translated in some GOP minds as vacillation, the same attribute that probably cost Democrat John Kerry last year’s presidential bid.

Mr. Baldi suffered, moreover, from this last term on the Board of Aldermen. While generally seen as a peace-maker, his votes with his other male Republican males made him vulnerable on charges of creating a chaos that resulted in a constantly bickering and bitter City Hall.

For now, incumbents Marcia Hall and Donna Ramsburg have shots at four more years on the board, supported by their fellow Democrats of most local persuasions.

Mr. Holtzinger gained a certain fame within the GOP for walking out on the Dougherty administration early; but not before he warned well in advance about the looming water crisis, which seriously affected every aspect of the mayor’s past three years.

The possessor of degrees in both law and engineering, most of all, brings to the campaign no excess “baggage.” His status as an unknown enhances his chances, if indeed Mr. Young and others are right, that the primaries were dominated by voters’ desire for a change.

While a political neophyte, Mr. Holtzinger ranks as a veteran of municipal government’s machinations. Appointed by Mayor Jim Grimes, he spent years learning how the city machine works.

But on the record, he has yet to display vision, the ability to see beyond the mundane details and the quality most needed to bring Frederick out of the muck and mire generated these past four years.

When speaking of Ron Young, vision’s the first word out of his supporters’ mouths; they can, with great justice, point out that modern Frederick developed during his four-term administration. While not all the good ideas were his, he had the wisdom to grasp and implement what was good for his hometown.

Mr. Young’s defeat had everything to do with “staying too long at his own party,” as I generalized his 1989 electoral problems in this space earlier. At the top of his form, he shapes up as the best public figure that ever happened to the community.

Perhaps 16 years out of office and changes in his seasoned outlook and personal support have created a candidate new in every way that counts in the current atmosphere. Time will tell.

On all sides in Tuesday’s primaries, voters demonstrated they are fed up with squabbling politicians. Ms. Dougherty’s post-election comments to Frederick News-Post and The Washington Post reporters reflect the attitude that really brought about her downfall.

"‘Maybe people don't like honesty and correctness out of their politicians," she said to reporters. "Maybe they like things to be sugar-coated. I like the truth.’”

“’I suppose the only disappointing thing is that people get uncomfortable when you tell them the truth, when you tell them what’s going on,” Ms. Dougherty said. “People say they want honesty and integrity in their elected officials, and then there is always the backlash in whether they really want it.’”

In essence she placed the blame on citizens who were unable to comprehend how good her leadership really was, dismissing voters for their failure to appreciate her attributes.

Every defeated politician is entitled to denial; it helps them sleep at night. But her concept of what amounts to honesty and integrity were very much fodder for Mr. Young’s campaign. A series of hard-hitting ads quoting verified detail seriously damaged her claim to truth and integrity at every turn.

When the mayor got around to congratulating Tuesday’s winner, she spoiled the intra-party spirit of reconciliation by asking that he return her signs that disappeared in recent weeks, as if he were personally to blame. In every election candidates have the same complaint. Ms. Dougherty implied the lost signs had weakened her candidacy.

Looking back it’s easy to recognize she did herself in. Much has been made of her last-minute attempt to put Ron Young’s name in the prostitution madam’s “black book;” as a tactic it obviously backfired, bringing into her opponent’s camp both money and people.

The charge landed in a growing perception that she was in a desperation mode. Gone was the self-confident, smooth talking politico who had dominated the Democratic Party’s debates at FCC. That persona resurfaced on Saturday’s WFMD program that hosted the mayoral candidates. But too late.

In unpublished polls, Ms. Dougherty went from a 10 point lead going into September to a 20 point deficit in the campaign’s closing days. As you know, Mr. Young won by eight points; but that may have resulted from voters believing he had the race in the bag. Who knows?

Slightly over three registered Democrats stayed home for every one that cast ballots. Based on past primaries that was a higher turnout than in recent years; it also enabled the mayor to think she would have four more years if only all her supporters had shown up Tuesday.

By late the following afternoon, Ms. Dougherty passed remarks published in The Gazette yesterday that seemed to indicate she might still run in November, but as another party’s candidate or an independent. Her supposed intention was to rob votes from Mr. Young, strengthening Republican hopes.

Based on her primary performance her chances look bleak. If she manages to secure nearly 900 registered voters’ names on a petition, or successfully win endorsement from another party – by no means certain, in either case – the mayor would still need to raise significant funding. The question: Are there enough folks who share her intense dislike for Ron Young that they are willing to kick in cash for a campaign headed nowhere? We will know in coming days.

Meanwhile, Ron Young and Jeff Holtzinger face a serious electoral fight; neither goes into the run-up to November with anything like the anger and vindictiveness that have dominated City Hall during Jennifer Dougherty’s regime.

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