Josh Kurtz: A Few Good Men

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By: Josh Kurtz 

Downtown Ellicott City at dusk looks like a movie set, too beautiful to be true. With its narrow sloping streets and historic buildings, art galleries and drinking and dining, small wonder it’s such a desirable community.

But Ellicott City is not without real needs – it’s choked with traffic, its streets flood, its business owners need help, and like everywhere else in the state, its schools could use more money.

Those needs are part of Tom Coale’s pitch as he addresses a fundraiser on the back porch of Portalli’s restaurant in downtown Ellicott City last week.

“We call this campaign an opportunity for Ellicott City,” said Coale, the Democratic nominee for House of Delegates in District 9B.

It’s no secret that political gerrymandering is a real problem in Maryland, making November irrelevant in most legislative districts, because so many races for the state House and Senate are decided during party primaries rather than in the general election.

But a rare and welcome exception is taking place in the Ellicott City area, where two solid candidates are vying for the House of Delegates in a single-member subdistrict.

Coale, a 30-something lawyer who has served on the Columbia Association Board and with other nonprofits, is something of an “it” candidate in Maryland Democratic circles. The publisher of the popular HoCo Rising blog, Coale has attracted support from Democratic activists across the state, and from such diverse parts of the Democratic coalition as the Maryland State Education Association and Comptroller Peter Franchot (D).

Coale says he invokes Franchot’s name frequently when he makes public appearances and knocks on doors. Like Franchot, he calls himself “fiscally responsible with a purpose” – a fiscal conservative who is progressive on social issues.

There’s an undeniable, almost irresistible optimism about Coale. He casts himself as a problem solver on the campaign trail, and talks about his desire to empower the community “in the face of cynicism.”

But Coale has a very formidable opponent.

The Republican is Bob Flanagan, who represented the area in the House of Delegates for four terms and served as transportation secretary under GOP Gov. Bob Ehrlich.

Flanagan, who was one of the wiliest and most strategic Republicans in Annapolis during his legislative career, is sounding standard GOP themes about high taxes and a hostile business climate.

“I’m campaigning in a district where the quality of life is very high,” Flanagan, who turns 68 three days before the election, said in an interview this week. “These people are for the most part very happy with their own lives but they also are very intelligent and informed. They see what’s happening and they know Maryland is not moving in the right direction.”

But Flanagan is also emphasizing his record of service to the community – the sound walls he brought to the district, the intersection improvements, the management reforms he instituted at the Motor Vehicle Administration.

This is not Flanagan’s first comeback attempt since the end of the Ehrlich administration. Four years ago, he ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Howard County Council, losing to Democrat Courtney Watson, 52.7 percent to 47.3 percent.

“I feel very comfortable with this spectrum of issues,” he says of the 2014 terrain.

Interestingly, both candidates are party switchers: Coale was a Republican until a couple of years ago, and Flanagan was a Democrat as a young man. (Flanagan’s younger brother, Ed, was a longtime Democratic politician in Vermont, including a stint as state auditor. He was the first openly gay statewide elected official in the country, and ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 2000.)

Both Coale and Flanagan got through contentious primaries in June, and both aren’t completely following their parties’ political playbooks in the general election. Flanagan is stressing his political independence.

“I’ve worked with Democrats on issues and solving problems, but I’ve also taken on corruption and abuse in office that Democrats recognized but didn’t feel comfortable taking on,” he said.

What’s also notable about this race is that it has featured no name-calling to speak of. The candidates are largely trying to ignore one another.

“I would prefer not to comment about my opponent,” Flanagan said in the interview – although he did allow that voters would have to weigh his 20 years of public service and their familiarity with him against “somebody who’s just starting from scratch.”

Coale, speaking lyrically, not unlike a certain governor of Maryland who is contemplating a run for president, calls cynicism “my only opponent in the race – not Bob Flanagan. Not a man waving at traffic. Not a man who previously served in the House of Delegates. I’ll give Bob Flanagan his name. Give me my friends.”

Their approaches to the campaign may differ, but external forces are also at work. One of the few competitive County Council races in Howard County is taking place in the Ellicott City area, and the county executive race between Watson and state Sen. Alan Kittleman (R) – son of Flanagan’s longtime co-conspirator in Annapolis, the late, great Bob Kittleman – also appears to be very tight.

The two candidates’ worldviews are obviously different, and they would clearly emphasize different things if they wind up in Annapolis next January. But both are good guys who would make conscientious legislators – and who could ask for a better choice than that?

It’s almost enough to make you optimistic about democracy in Maryland.

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.