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The Tentacle


September 21, 2006

Choosing Sides

Tony Soltero

Now that the primary dust has settled, two conclusions are pretty obvious in the county commissioners' race: (a) there is significant resistance to the idea of reckless, unbridled growth in Frederick County; and (b) name recognition is an even more important attribute than a candidate's stand on growth.

There just doesn't seem to be an alternative explanation for the rather schizophrenic menu of commissioner nominees selected by the Republican primary voters. The two most developer-friendly candidates, incumbents Mike Cady and John Lovell, perched themselves at the top two spots.

But they were closely followed by the resolute slow-growther (being generous) Lennie Thompson, who survived a barrage of blistering attacks from all corners, and David Gray, another slow-growther with high name recognition.

Rounding out the top five was Charles Jenkins, who is somewhere in between on growth issues, though certainly closer to Mr. Cady than to Mr. Thompson. The similarly-inclined Billy Shreve finished just barely off the pace.

Given the tight bunching of the top six and the large gap between Mr. Shreve and the rest of the pack, it appears that it really was mostly about name recognition. But whatever the voters' rationale, the stark reality is that the outcome turned out extremely dicey for developer interests.

Only three of the nine candidates in the general election - Mr. Cady, Mr. Lovell, and Mr. Jenkins - can reasonably be considered to be builder-friendly. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that, of course - people need to live somewhere; but as it stands now, considering the controlled-growth values of the Democratic candidates, it doesn't appear too likely that the next Board of County Commissioners is going to be approving any sequels to the New Market Region Plan.

In order to proceed with growth-business-as-usual, the next commissioner board will have to include Mr. Cady, Mr. Lovell, and Mr. Jenkins. Arriving at this permutation is going to be an extremely challenging task for builders' interests, though; it's pretty clear that (a) Lennie Thompson is just not going to be moved (if he overcame those vicious front-group assaults on him, he'll get through anything); and (b) Jan Gardner's bipartisan, broad-based appeal makes her extremely tough to dislodge. The developer interests have no margin for error.

So that leaves Mr. Gray and the other three Democrats in the race - Kai Hagen, Dick Floyd, and Ron Wolf. To get their trifecta, the builder interests are going to have to make sure none of them settles into a commissioner's seat. But it's hard to see how this is going to happen.

David Gray, as a former Commissioner, enjoys excellent name recognition and popularity, as evidenced by his strong finish despite his relatively meager sign presence and lack of a website. And since he's a former Democrat, it's difficult to see his appeal declining as he moves onto the general.

Kai Hagen has been running a relentless, precision-tooled campaign, thanks in part to the contributions of his talented young manager Adam Schultz. He has drawn overwhelming grassroots support, raising more funds than the ultra-established Mr. Cady and Mr. Lovell over the last reporting cycle. And if lawn signs could vote, he'd win in a landslide (pardon the pun).

Dick Floyd is perhaps the most strict when it comes to growth policy - a viewpoint that carries significant appeal among Frederick County denizens. And Ron Wolf, also running on a controlled-growth platform, also boasts a strong constituency.

It is very hard to see how all of those candidates will fall short of the top five. There's not much wiggle room here for the builders - and I suspect they know this. They're going to have to get creative.

How will they do this? My guess is that they'll try to re-define the parameters of the election so that the growth issue takes a backseat to some other issue in which they can place Mr. Cady, Mr. Lovell, and Mr. Jenkins on one side and everyone else on the other side. It is an old trick - change the subject and then perform a bait-and-switch. I hope the candidates are ready. This could get ugly.

The builders have their work cut out for them. It's hard to see how they'll pull it off, but it won't be for any lack of trying.



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