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Well-Matched Competitors Heat Up Howard County Executive Contest

Howard County Library System via flickr

Howard County, Maryland, seems to have it all: a semi-urban, semi-rural suburb of both Baltimore and Washington that repeatedly scores near the top of national rankings for income, public schools and overall quality of life. And now competing for the county’s top political job is an impressive duo:  a liberal yet pro-business Democrat and a tight-fisted Republican, who’s also a leading civil rights advocate.

Some might call the contest between County Council member Courtney Watson and state Senator Allan Kittleman a no-lose proposition. But not the candidates.

“I’ve lived in Howard county all my life and folks, my opponent is running the most negative campaign in the history of our county, based on lies,  misleading statements and distortion of my record,” Kittleman complained to a debate audience the other night. “I caution you and every resident of Howard County that if someone runs a campaign based on fear and intimidation, how do you think they are going to run the government?”

Watson countered in an interview afterward that Kittleman is unhappy because she targeted his record. “He doesn’t like it because his record is negative,” she said. “His record on guns, his record on choice, anti-choice, against gun safety, against funding education, against funding public safety.  That’s his record.”

But as with many campaigns in Maryland and across the nation, the candidate has made much of positions taken or votes cast without putting them in context.

On abortion, Kittleman has repeatedly voted to limit rather than expand access. On guns, he was a leading opponent of the 2013 measure that gave Maryland some of the tightest firearms restrictions in the country. But his purported opposition to education and other funding is attributed to his repeated rejection of state budgets that he considers bloated. “It’s not to slow down spending on education, it’s to slow down spending in general.”

What’s more, Watson and her Democratic allies have waged an advertising campaign that erroneously slammed Kittleman for advocating that teachers be armed, and blasted him for a low Humane Society rating that actually belonged to his late father, Robert Kittleman, who was also a state senator.

Watson corrected the errors, but offered no apology for the tactic in a county where the strong Democratic majority often includes swing voters. “We want to make sure that people understand that my opponent is a conservative Republican with a conservative Republican record with the exception of a couple of votes: one being the gay marriage vote and the other being the death penalty repeal vote,” she explained.

But those two votes on highly controversial issues were huge in the context of Annapolis politics. Along with Kittleman’s support for decriminalizing marijuana and a deep commitment to racial equality inherited from his father, these positions make him difficult to paint with such a broad brush. “People know me and they trust me and I think that’s why the other side is worried,” he said.

People also know Watson. She served eight years on the Council after four years on the school board. She’s also a close ally of current County Executive Ken Ulman, who is now running for Lieutenant Governor.But beneath the rhetoric, Kittleman, 55, and Watson, 52, have similar backgrounds and nearly identical campaign platforms. Both come from families with a history of political involvement in the county. Both are calling for even better schools, expanded mental health services and efforts to make county government more accessible.As with the race for governor between Democrat Anthony Brown and Republican Larry Hogan, much will depend on whether voters are happy with the status quo--and which ones bother to show up.