For the first time in two decades, Baltimore County doesn't have a favorite son or daughter in the governor's race. All the more reason why candidates seeking Maryland's top office are fighting for the votes of county residents.
"Baltimore County is going to be critical because it's the third-largest pool of Democratic votes," said John T. Willis, a high-profile Democrat and author of a book on Maryland politics.
On the Republican side, Helen Delich Bentley, who represented the county in Congress for a decade, has no doubt of its importance in her party's primary. Baltimore County has more Republican voters than any other jurisdiction in the state.
"Whoever carries Baltimore County is the one that's going to win," Bentley said.
Not since 1990 — when Baltimore's William Donald Schaefer ran against William S. Shepard of Montgomery County — have the major parties failed to nominate a Baltimore County native or resident for governor. In the years since, Republicans Ellen Sauerbrey and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend have been on the November ballot, and others from the county — including Bentley — vied in the primaries.
So this year, the three Democrats in the June 24 primary — Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and Del. Heather R. Mizeur, all from the Washington suburbs — have been working hard to get county residents in their corner. They have been operating phone banks, sending volunteers door to door and making personal appearance before political clubs and at fairs and parades.
Ditto for the four Republicans, Harford County Executive David R. Craig, Larry Hogan and Del. Ron George of Anne Arundel County, and Charles Lollar of Charles County.
George said his message about spurring manufacturing and export-import businesses in Baltimore "also plays into Baltimore County. They're affected by what happens in the city."
George, who owns a small business, said he believes the key to winning in the county will be "showing that you're one of them."
Baltimore County, which has more than 800,000 residents and is the third-largest locality in the state, sprawls across some 600 square miles. It encompasses rolling horse farms, middle-class subdivisions, onetime bedroom communities for the now-idle Sparrows Point steel plant and pockets of poverty. In April, the most recent data available, its unemployment rate of 5.6 percent was higher than the state average of 5.3 percent.
Anirban Basu, senior economist at the Sage Policy Group, said the key issues vary significantly in different parts of the county.
"Baltimore County is many counties wrapped into one envelope," he said. In the affluent north, taxes and business regulation are key concerns. In the southeast, restoring the jobs base, affordable housing and better schools will be on people's minds. In the Woodlawn area, mass transit will join jobs and education as a key concern, he said.
But as in many other communities across the state, it has been hard getting voters to pay attention to a primary that's been moved up from September.
During a Sunday afternoon campaign stop outside his county headquarters in Pikesville, Gansler did his best to rev up excitement in the race. He told supporters that every vote is critical in what is expected to be a low-turnout contest.
Turnout is "not going to be extremely high because nobody knows there's an election in June," Gansler told the crowd, urging them to knock on doors and make phone calls to get supporters to the polls.
Jules Rosenberg of Reisterstown, who attended the Gansler event, said he's not seeing the passion he remembers from his days as a volunteer for George McGovern's presidential race in 1972.
"I think it's a sign of the time when people are so disconnected from flesh touching flesh," he said.
State Sen. James Brochin, a north county Democrat known for his door-to-door campaigning, has a similar take: "I have never seen a race in all of my 20 years of being actively involved in Maryland politics where there's less enthusiasm about a governor's race than this year."
Don Murphy, a longtime GOP activist and former delegate from Catonsville, hasn't detected much enthusiasm on the Republican side, either. He said Republican voters don't see many differences among the four candidates and could live with any of them.
"I don't think the world ends if one gets nominated over the other," he said. "Everybody wants somebody more exciting because that's the way everybody is."
John Bullock, a professor of political science at Towson University, said he believes county Republicans will be looking for electability over ideological purity. "The conservative bona fides matter, but you want someone who's going to have a decent shot at winning," he said.
Among the Democrats, all three campaigns are seeing hopeful signs.
Joanna Belanger, Mizeur's campaign manager, said the Montgomery County lawmaker has been courting Baltimore County voters since the first week of her campaign. She said Mizeur has 25 volunteer organizers at work in the county and expects to have an ad on TV in the Baltimore market soon.
Belanger said Mizeur is stressing a theme of "making sure the middle class is represented in Annapolis." The campaign strategist said she does not see a need for a specific message tailored to Baltimore County.
"Most people in Maryland are concerned about the same things," Belanger said.
In some ways, the Democratic race seems to be defying stereotypes.
Brown has racked up endorsements from old-line Democratic clubs and county elected officials on the east side, where so-called Reagan Democrats defected in large numbers to Ehrlich in 2002. Brown's county campaign co-chairs include Councilman John Olszewski Sr. and Sen. Kathy Klausmeier, east-side officials who are more moderate in their politics than Brown or Gov. Martin O'Malley.
While Brown is African-American, Gansler has earned the endorsement of the county's only African-American senator, Delores Kelley, and her 10th District Democratic Club on the west side. Mizeur, meanwhile, is making inroads in Towson and the Catonsville area, where two active Democratic clubs recently endorsed her by wide margins after hearing from all three of the party's candidates.
Brown, however, held the clear early advantage. In February, a Baltimore Sun poll found him leading Gansler by a 2-1 margin in the county.
Kelley's support notwithstanding, the African-American vote in the U.S. 40 and Liberty Road corridors will likely be an important advantage for Brown, the son of Jamaican and Swiss immigrants. The black population in Baltimore County is close to 30 percent of the total, but the African-American proportion of Democratic primary voters could reach 40 percent to 45 percent, said Herbert C. Smith, professor of political science at McDaniel College and co-author with Willis of "Maryland Politics and Government."
Olszewski, who is one of four Democratic County Council members backing Brown, said the lieutenant governor has already received the backing of the County Seal and Battle Grove Democratic clubs. He thinks Brown will do well on the east side, largely because of his Army service, which included a tour of duty in Iraq.
Ron Yeatman of Edgemere, president of the County Seal club and a candidate to succeed the retiring Olszewski, said Brown has been in southeastern Baltimore County often and has been well received.
"He's a vet. People respect that," Yeatman said.
Basu said Baltimore County is especially critical for Gansler because Brown is expected to easily carry Baltimore City and his home county of Prince George's. He said Gansler is expected to do well in Montgomery, but that won't be enough.
"The Gansler camp," Basu said, "has got to know that Baltimore County has got to be a big win for them."