Our network

Montgomery County Is Battleground For Swing Votes | News

Title (Max 100 Characters)

Montgomery County Is Battleground For Swing Votes

BETHESDA, Md. (AP) -- Montgomery County's troubles could be former Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich's ticket back to the governor's mansion.

The state's largest, wealthiest and arguably most liberal jurisdiction is broke. County leaders wrestled to plug a roughly $1 billion budget deficit this year.

Ehrlich has made the county a focal point in his campaign. He announced he would challenge Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley in Rockville, the county seat. His running mate, former Maryland Secretary of State Mary Kane, is from Potomac, one of the county's plushest communities.

Local council members -- all Democrats -- haven't done O'Malley many favors at home. As their own financial woes grew, they've routinely accused O'Malley of treating the county like a piggy bank. They often note that Montgomery County gets back roughly 17 or 18 cents in state aid for every tax dollar their residents pay, whereas Baltimore City gets $1.03 back for every tax dollar spent.

While all say they'll support O'Malley's bid for re-election, several admit they hoped for more from a governor who grew up in their county.

Councilman Phil Andrews of Rockville, a Democrat who served as council president from 2008 to 2009, said O'Malley has done well as governor, but some state funding changes that occurred during his administration have hit Montgomery County hard.

"It's because he could have done better here and because the economy has been so tight that it has created an opening for a comeback from Governor Ehrlich," Andrews said.

Other county leaders accuse state officials of ignoring changing demographics, which include a growing number of poor, immigrant residents.

"I think he's completely taken us for granted," said former Council President Mike Knapp, a Democrat from Germantown who led the body from 2007-2008.

Their list of complaints includes a decision by leaders in Annapolis to create a state millionaire's tax, set to expire at the end of this year. Some Montgomery leaders believe the tax drove at least a few of their wealthiest residents to leave the county.

According to county data, there were 851 fewer people filing tax returns with annual income of $1 million or more, a drop of 28 percent in the first year the state implemented the millionaire tax.

Local officials also remember what led state lawmakers to pass the tax on millionaires. The decision was made after lawmakers were heavily criticized for voting to extend the sales tax to the computer services industry, a move Montgomery leaders said would destroy the local economy. The General Assembly repealed the sales tax extension before it ever took effect, after industry leaders threatened to leave the state.

Democratic County Executive Ike Leggett, a former state Democratic Party chairman, described O'Malley as a "pretty good friend, but it's a tough time." He said he couldn't say whether O'Malley or Ehrlich had treated the county better during their tenures, but that O'Malley had done a better job for the state overall.

O'Malley himself maintains he has a good relationship with Montgomery voters, which he often attributes to spending his youth in the county.

"I understand the anxieties that people face there, the challenges with growth and traffic. That's, I think, a strength I have been able to bring to this job, is an understanding that we are one state," O'Malley said the day Ehrlich announced his candidacy in April.

After years of debate, it was during O'Malley's tenure that state officials finally began building the InterCounty Connector, a six-lane, 18.8 mile toll highway that will run between Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

Analysts say Ehrlich can't beat O'Malley in Montgomery, but he is smart to fight hard in the famously liberal jurisdiction.

"It wasn't too long ago that Montgomery County residents routinely voted for a Republican for Congress -- Connie Morrella," said Paul Herrnson, the director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland. "It makes sense for the Ehrlich campaign to look very seriously there for votes."

Ehrlich aides are optimistic.

Katja Bullock, the Ehrlich campaign's co-coordinator in Montgomery County, says Ehrlich asked her to ensure 43 percent of Montgomery residents vote for him.

Ehrlich received roughly 39 percent of the Montgomery County vote against Democratic gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in 2002, but only 36.7 percent against O'Malley in 2006. Bullock says she is confident that nabbing 44 percent of the Montgomery County vote will lead to a win, "if everybody else does like they usually do."

Jerry Pasternak, who was a top aide to former Democratic Montgomery County executive and O'Malley rival Doug Duncan, says it will be tough for Ehrlich to reach his Montgomery County goal. Despite an anti-incumbent mood elsewhere in the country, Pasternak says Montgomery is not likely to be "a breeding ground for a revolt against the Democratic party." Montgomery County's nine county council members, the county executive, eight state senators and 24 state delegates are all Democrats.

Ehrlich spokesman Andy Barth, however, doesn't think Montgomery residents will vote solely on partisan leanings.

"We think there is a lot of resentment or disagreement with the O'Malley tax policies," Barth said.