Josh Kurtz: Frederick the Great

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By Josh Kurtz: 

Ground zero for Maryland politics -- right now and maybe next year? Try Frederick.

The city of Frederick is seeing a free-for-all race for mayor this year, with an unbelievable array of storylines, characters and resentments. And in 2014, Frederick County may play host to the most competitive general election race in the entire state, as voters choose their first-ever county executive.

The two contests are very much related -- and in fact, the highly-anticipated race for county executive is largely on hold pending the outcome of the city elections this fall. Frederick has undergone enormous change over the last several years -- politically, economically and socially -- and more is coming.

First up, on Sept. 10, are the Republican and Democratic primaries for mayor of Frederick and the five members of the Board of Aldermen.

Four years ago, voters cleaned house, electing a new mayor and five new aldermen. They voted in a Republican for mayor -- Randy McClement, owner of a local deli. But four of the five aldermen elected were Democrats.

Three Democrats and three Republicans are vying in the mayoral primaries. On the GOP side, McClement is facing his predecessor, Jeff Holtzinger, who chose not to run for re-election in 2009, and the lone Republican on the Board of Aldermen, Shelley Aloi.

McClement is a good guy -- but many Frederick voters would be hard-pressed to identify any major accomplishments. He certainly hasn’t been able to scare the two other well-known Republicans out of the race, and his renomination, let alone his reelection, hardly seems like a foregone conclusion.

On the Democratic side, the race features two heavyweights and a political newcomer. In the first category are Ald. Karen Young and state Del. Galen Clagett. The newcomer is a Wal-Mart cashier named Carol Hirsch -- who happens to be deaf. When the six mayoral candidates staged their first debate earlier this month, Hirsch had to sit on the sidelines because no one could find a certified sign-language interpreter quickly enough.

If Young’s name sounds familiar to a casual observer of Frederick politics, it’s only because her husband, Ron Young, is a former mayor and current Democratic state senator who once ran the state Planning Department -- and because one step-son is Frederick County Commissioner  Blaine Young, a Republican, and another is Brad Young, an elected member of the Frederick County Board of Education. The names of several soap operas instantly come to mind, starting with “Dynasty” and “The Young and the Restless.”

Clagett, a prosperous real estate broker, also has a long history in local politics, having been a county commissioner before being elected to the legislature in 2002.

Like the GOP race, this primary is also hard to handicap, though Young may have the edge among Democratic activists.

The two primary winners will not have the November ballot to themselves. Lying in wait is former Democratic Mayor Jennifer Dougherty, who has qualified for the general election as an independent.

Presumably Dougherty, who retains a nice core of loyalists, will harm the Democratic nominee more than the Republican in November. That will especially be true if Karen Young wins the Democratic primary; there’s no love lost between Dougherty and the Youngs, especially after Ron Young ousted Dougherty in the 2005 Democratic mayoral primary (only to lose the general election to Holtzinger. Got it?).

But if Clagett is the Democratic nominee, he may have enough crossover appeal to blunt whatever pull Dougherty’s candidacy might have on independent voters.

Whether or not there’s change at the top at City Hall, there will be significant change on the Board of Aldermen, because three incumbents aren’t seeking reelection -- Aloi and Karen Young, who are running for mayor, and Democratic Ald. Carol Krimm, Clagett’s legislative aide, who is helping her boss’ mayoral campaign and is widely expected to run for his seat in the House of Delegates next year.

Eight Democrats are competing for the five ballot slots for alderman in November, and seven Republicans are running in the GOP primary. Among the Democratic candidates for alderman is Josh Bokee, director of government and regulatory affairs in the D.C. region for Comcast, who also served as a top aide to former Montgomery County Councilman Mike Knapp (D). Aldermen are elected citywide in Frederick.

No sooner does the race for City Hall end but the next one begins -- for the county executive slot and seven County Council positions under Frederick County’s new charter government system.

Most Frederick insiders expect the race for county executive to be a contest between Blaine Young -- even though he continues to flirt with the idea of running for governor in 2014 -- and former County Commissioner Jan Gardner (D). They see this as an epic heavyweight battle where the contrasts -- both ideologically and temperamentally -- couldn’t be greater.

But neither has committed to the race -- never mind sketched out a governing vision for the new Frederick County. Young, it’s widely assumed, will conclude that he can’t be elected governor and will decide to stay closer to home. He’s already raised a lot of money, and that will be a distinct advantage if he runs for executive.

Democrats assume Gardner will run mainly because they can’t conceive of a stronger candidate. Currently she’s Barbara Mikulski’s Western Maryland director.

Will other executive wannabe’s defer to Young and Gardner in their respective primaries? It’s too early to tell.

County Commissioner David Gray (R) hasn’t ruled out running for executive, though he’s considered more moderate than the average Frederick Republican, and could have a hard time winning the nomination. Some Democrats think former County Commissioner Kai Hagen -- who lost a reelection bid in 2010 -- may also be eyeing the race. Party leaders would much prefer Gardner.

Though the city of Frederick has become dramatically more liberal over the past decade, Frederick County still trends Republican -- with a solid pocket of GOP voters in the northern part of the county. Republicans swept the five seats on the Board of County Commissioners in 2010 -- a big GOP year nationally -- and the county races next year could once again be affected by the national political dynamic.

Under the new charter government, Frederick voters will be electing seven Council members along with the executive. Two will be elected countywide, and five others will be elected from districts. Two of those districts will be anchored in the city, so are likely to produce Democratic winners, and the one in the northern part of the county will almost certainly elect a Republican. That makes the districts in the southeast and southwest corners of the county competitive.

At this stage we don‘t know whether any of the county commissioners will seek equivalent positions on the new County Council. We also don’t have a full sense of what the state legislative races will look like.

But make no mistake: Even though you may not be able to tell all the players without a scorecard, it’s going to be a great 15 months to be following the political game in Frederick.


NOTE TO READERS: My column returns on Aug. 13. Thanks for reading!

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .


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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.