The Main Event
The wrap-up to this series on the June 26 primary election focuses on the race for Frederick County Executive, in what will no doubt be the highest profile local race this year.
First up, the Republican field. By all accounts, this was expected to be the big one, the race to end all races. So far, it’s been anything but.
Two-term state Delegate Kathy Afzali gave up a relatively safe seat in Annapolis to go after incumbent Executive Jan Gardner. Delegate Afzali had risen to a position of some prominence in the House of Delegates, working her way up to ranking minority member of the Ways & Means Committee, as well as several years as the Chair of the Frederick County legislative delegation.
She has had a consistent voting record in Annapolis. She has either voted along party lines, or at least with a group of her GOP colleagues. On a few really controversial issues, including the infamous “red flag” bill, she wisely stuck close to GOP Gov. Larry Hogan. The red flag bill Governor Hogan endorsed ensures that the state can seize legally-owned firearms from people deemed by the courts or mental health agencies as a potential problem. Second Amendment purists attacked her vote as a weakening of constitutional protections against seizure.
Her only real kerfuffle was a poorly thought-out personality battle with very popular Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins. But that stuff happens, so it certainly isn’t dispositive or disqualifying.
It probably needs cleaning-up, though.
Ms. Afzali has a war chest, a team of volunteers, and relatively high name recognition, so she might have been strongly favored.
But this isn’t any normal year. County Councilman Kirby Delauter, owner of W.F. Delauter & Son, a well-established northern Frederick County utilities contractor, felt like this was his year to challenge the incumbent and take his shot at the top job. He is noted for his blunt and direct straight talk. Early in his tenure, a dispute over the use of his words and image in press accounts led to a notable appearance on national news shows, particularly on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow show. Referencing Mr. Delauter’s belief that he had control over his name resulted in the joke punchline: “Kirby Delauter, Kirby Delauter, Kirby Delauter.”
Not a shining moment, but a funny one.
Speaking of funny, no one would accuse Mr. Delauter of taking his public service lightly. He is a very serious guy, although those who know him best cite his sense of humor as a key characteristic. A typical observer of the County Council wouldn’t reach that conclusion.
On core conservative issues, Mr. Delauter is in lockstep with the Republican Party. He is strong on guns, anti-tax, and a hardline fiscal and social conservative. He challenges all opponents to commit to opposing sanctuary policies like those found in DC and Montgomery County. So far, none have.
His biggest problem? It seems that he hates his job. His scowl during meetings gives the occasional voter the sense that he doesn’t much care for governing. Why, then, would a voter give him more government responsibility?
Smile more, Kirby, or at least act like you might really enjoy running the county. There’s still time.
The final candidate on the Republican primary ballot is former county finance department employee Regina Williams. She, having run the budget office and examined multiple agency budget submissions over the years, knows as much about the county’s fiscal operations as anyone else in the race. She also comes from a prominent northeast county agricultural background, the daughter of John Williams of J-Bar-W Ranch and rodeo, and Debbie Williams, the foundress of the Patty Pollatos Fund and supporter of numerous important nonprofit and charity causes.
Regina has both the fighting spirit of her Dad and the generous compassion of her Mom. Those in the political know will remember a personal entanglement with a prominent former politician that has some questioning Regina’s decision-making. Her answer is almost perfect. She asks those who question her (and some do) whether or not they believe in redemption and forgiveness. Since most do (really, who among us doesn’t), Regina asks them for that opportunity. Regina has the ability to connect one-on-one with voters in a way no other county executive candidate does.
A recent Red Maryland poll questioned people on this race. Del. Afzali came out of the poll with a strong lead, although the poll was an open one and the total polled may or may not have been eligible to vote in that specific race. Regardless, it was a measurement in a race so far lacking measures, or even any political heat. Maybe they’re saving it up for June!
Whether it’s Kathy, Kirby or Regina that prevails in the GOP race, the mountain facing the victor is the political equivalent of Mount Everest. Incumbent Jan Gardner seems practically invincible, by most objective measures.
First, she’s smart and savvy. She campaigns like a workhorse, and she has a committed squad of volunteers and letter-writers who are vigilant and diligent. The editorial page will be full of fawning, loving odes to Ms. Gardner, and from all corners of the county. Environmental activists, teachers union, business people, techies and people in the Ag community will be there for her, as they have in the past.
Second, she knows her stuff. She’s made less capable candidates look downright silly in debates in past years. If you look at her vote tallies in primarily Republican voter precincts in past elections, you’ll see that she tallies impressive numbers, often equaling the GOP candidates and sometimes eclipsing them.
Third, she works really hard. She takes no vote for granted, and she attends most every event where voters might gather. Those volunteers mentioned earlier are everywhere she can’t be. She also hasn't really done much for Republicans to point at as possible scandals, failures or losses, either.
There are a few wildcards, though.
Earl Robbins, the retired aluminum industry executive, former school board member and well-respected spokesman for eliminating the minority academic achievement gap, is gathering signatures for an unaffiliated run for county executive. There’s no reason at all to believe he won’t get them. Rest assured he will.
The big question is what does he do with it? Can an unaffiliated candidate win a countywide election? It’s never happened before, so doubt exists. Can he raise enough money in order to raise enough awareness to have a serious shot? Mr. Robbins is serious guy, with serious credentials behind him. Can he cut into any of Executive Gardner’s base?
Also, the county’s International Association of Fire Fighters is in a serious budget dispute with Ms. Gardner over pay and work hours. Both sides were negotiating, but those negotiations seemed to collapse as the county budget was being adopted. Will that lack of support be turned into a campaign issue against the Gardner Administration?
Finally, early in this series, the election of Maryland’s governor got some coverage. Larry Hogan, the incumbent Republican governor, is on a fast track toward reelection, if all stays equal between now and November.
What impact will gubernatorial coattails have in the race for county executive? Will Governor Hogan make appearances for and with the GOP party nominee? Frederick County is still a majority Republican County (although more purple than red), so a strong Hogan endorsement could be a benefit for the right Republican candidate.
Early advantage? Clearly, the early advantage goes to Jan Gardner. If the General Election were being held on June 26, instead of the primary, she’d already be prepping her thank you ads.