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October 31, 2005

Frederick’s Future

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

It hardly seems possible, but tomorrow Frederick City voters go to the polls to elect the next mayor and Board of Aldermen.

There is a great deal at stake in this election. The city is struggling with a number of problems normally reserved for much larger cities, while at the same time struggling to find its own identity.

A blossoming minority population, including a growing percentage of illegal immigrants, a lagging municipal water and sewer infrastructure, poor relations with county government, seemingly endless traffic jams, and staggeringly low public employee morale.

This campaign season has seen some political engagement by non-traditional groups and organizations, and some even stranger political alignments.

In the mayor’s race, it appears that many of the big developers and commercial real estate firms are on Ron Young’s bandwagon. One can suspect that former Mayor Young’s history of annexing large parcels to control city boundaries sits well with the development community.

On the other hand, former City Engineer Jeff Holtzinger is talking about the need to carefully examine city infrastructure in relation to new developments. That might sound like a warning tone to the development industry, a harbinger of a tightening in relation to how future development proposals are viewed.

In truth, both candidates would probably take a much more measured approach to approving new residential and commercial development. There is also a number of high profile Republicans that are actively supporting the Young campaign. At first, it appeared that those folks were backing Ron simply to defeat the incumbent.

Another strange phenomenon is downtown-versus-outlying-suburbs battle. Young for Mayor signs dominate the landscape downtown, reflecting Candidate Young’s previous commitment to revitalization and renovation in the Market and Patrick Street corridors.

The Holtzinger camp reports an unusually high positive reception in the outlying suburbs, especially areas like Whittier, Worman’s Mill, and Dearbought. Some of that support might be attributed to the fact that many of those residents are not familiar with Ron Young’s many accomplishments as mayor.

They are also directly impacted by new development and inadequate infrastructure, and Mr. Holtzinger’s technical and methodical approach to new development probably rings a tone these folks can identify with.

One of former Mayor Young’s lead campaign workers is telling anyone who will listen to him that Jeff isn’t really serious about winning the mayor’s race, that Mr. Holtzinger is planning to work for Ron when Mr. Young gets elected. I know this because two people that spoke to this particular person told me exactly what he said. This same campaign worker aspires to political office himself, and I predict that his political future has gone from bright to murky due to his rumor mongering. Republicans won’t forget that kind of monkey-business.

Many thought that the lack of traditional Republican supporters might have had an impact on Joe Baldi. It seems that those GOP loyalists are sticking with Ron Young in the General Election, too.

In a move that furthers the weird, Twilight Zone feel of this election, a number of high profile Democrats are actively assisting the Holtzinger campaign. Thinking about the placement of yard signs, there are Holtzinger signs in a number of yards that would never have a Republican sign – except for this election cycle.

As far as anyone can tell, Mayor Jennifer Dougherty is playing no role in these random expressions of support for Jeff Holtzinger, although many of her primary election supporters are.

The strange alignments and odd partnerships aren’t restricted to the mayor’s race. In the aldermanic contest, there are some interesting conclusions to be drawn by actions and statements of the candidates.

C. Paul Smith, a GOP alderman candidate and practicing attorney, found himself at the center of a controversy over his personal position regarding homosexuality. A local opinion columnist with The Frederick News Post had written a scathing piece about Mr. Smith and his views.

The piece purported to represent Smith’s statements to the writer during a private conversation. The difficulty in interpreting the validity of these statements is the absence of context, leaving that aspect up to the writer, not the reader.

In an unusual move, the editors gave Paul Smith the opportunity to write his own opinion piece, and that chance afforded Mr. Smith that contextual framework to more fully explain his remarks and attitude on the subject.

Whether you agree with Candidate Smith or not, it is better to have access to his own words, written by his hand, than to be limited to someone else’s representations. It will be very interesting to see how this story affects the election. Conventional wisdom suggests that strident views will energize two bases, those who fervently agree, and those who are absolutely opposed.

It also looks like organized labor is using campaign contributions to affect the outcome of this election, as they have tried to do in past city elections. Several candidates for alderman have been the recipients of large donations from organized labor.

David “Kip” Koontz and Ken Berlin both received big chunks of campaign cash from organized labor. Both say that they have made no promises; but one could suspect that they have said just enough to comfort labor unions that they will vote the correct way when the time comes. Labor does not donate to a candidate just because they are nice people.

Labor unions give money to candidates that will vote to allow collective bargaining, period. It’s interesting to see that the incumbents, Aldermen Marcia Hall and Donna Kuzemchak-Ramsburg, did not receive any money from the labor movement even though both have made clear statements of support for bargaining rights for city workers. Guess their support has already been committed, so no need to spend more money.

An odd position statement from GOP Candidates Al Imhoff and Samie Conyers, though. Both Al and Samie appear to favor the rights of city employees to bargain collectively if the employees desire that right. Sadly, the low morale up and down the workforce over the last four years might be a sufficient motivation for employees to seek those rights.

Candidate Randy McClement stated a more cogent and rational position. The bagel guy asked the unions to explain to him how granting collective bargaining rights would help the residents of Frederick. His attitude is that these labor groups need to help him understand how organizing city workers either improves services or reduces costs. Not surprisingly, no union organizer could answer that question. Mr. McClement’s line of thinking is refreshing and welcomed.

The aforementioned Samie Conyers appears to be campaigning hard for the minority vote. His campaign in that community focuses on his evangelical Christian viewpoint and his service as a member and past chairman of the Frederick County Human Relations Commission (HRC).

The aspect that confounds me is that a conservative, religious Republican might find some of the HRC’s agenda an anathema. Not Reverend. Conyers, though. He embraces most of the HRC’s accomplishments and is campaigning on them as personal successes. It will be interesting to see if he can mine two voter bases, minority voters who subscribe to a liberally biased HRC agenda and conservative Christians who identify with his spiritual message.

Another interesting imponderable is the seeming fall from grace of Donna Kuzemchak-Ramsburg. As a popular incumbent with voters and activists, I had expected her to be either number one or two with Democratic voters in the primary.

I was shocked that The Gazette failed to endorse her. Donna cannot expect a crossover vote in the General Election. In fact, very few Democrat aldermen candidates will see a strong crossover vote. Maybe Kip Koontz, but not much beyond that. As a former Democrat Central Committee Chair, Tom Slater has had to be the voice of antagonism against elected Republicans, so he can pretty much write off any crossover.

On the GOP side, there will be a measurable crossover vote. Al Imhoff, who most people think of as a Democrat anyway, will receive a heavy crossover. Mr. McClement often comments on how many people stop by his deli to tell him that they can now vote for him, since they couldn’t in the primary. If Bishop Conyers’ strategy holds true, he’ll also see a substantial Democratic crossover vote.

GOP candidate James Joyce has drawn some unusual support from the anti-growth community. His strident opposition to a high density residential development near his Old Farm home gave him a high profile with folks not traditionally drawn to free market, pro-development Republicans.

The most important and interesting aspect of this race will be voter turnout. That was definitely a factor in the primary, just ask Joe Baldi. For the first few weeks after the primary, conventional wisdom suggested that low turnout had cost Joe the GOP primary victory.

That doesn’t seem so true today. One could argue now, looking back at the last few weeks before the General Election, that a higher GOP turnout might have just increased Jeff Holtzinger’s victory margin.

Similarly, the wider margin of victory for Ron Young over Mayor Dougherty indicates a strong desire by Democrats to see the city head in a different direction. They got their wish. Mayor Dougherty is now working to wrap up her work and finalize her administration’s plans versus expanding her focus to another four years in the big corner office at 101 North Court Street.

One factor that could have a major impact is the efforts of the party central committees in turning out the vote. I can’t speak for the Democrats; they don’t include me in their email chain. I do know that the GOP central committee is involved in a large-scale, coordinated effort to energize the Republican voters in the city. I can’t help but think that the Democrats are up to same thing.

A very high voter turnout will suggest major changes in future city governance. A high vote turnout will indicate a strong sense of ownership on the part of city residents, and that can only be good for Frederick, regardless of who the victors are.

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