Laslo Boyd – An Election Looking Forward or Back

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By: Laslo Boyd 

The race for House of Delegates District 9B, in Howard County, may be one of the most interesting elections in the state this fall.  There are a number of angles to this election that make it worth watching. 

First, the merely curious. This newly drawn portion of state legislative District 9 happens to correspond in large degree to the County Councilmanic District currently represented by Courtney Watson. In the 9th State Senate District, the incumbent office holder is Allan Kittleman.  As the two of them are battling to become the next Howard County Executive, both clearly look at this portion of the county as a base for their efforts.

Howard County is also the one jurisdiction in Maryland where a statewide candidate for office is likely to have an impact on turnout. Ken Ulman has been a highly popular County Executive and will certainly make every effort to ensure that the Brown-Ulman ticket carries his home county.

All of that is a backdrop to a contest between a political newcomer, Tom Coale, and one of the best-known names in the Republican Party, Bob Flanagan. To put the contrast in historical perspective, Coale was 5 years old when Flanagan was first elected to the Maryland House of Delegates in 1986.

Although this may be Coale’s first run for state office, he has already made his mark as an activist and engaged member of the Howard County community. He recounts wryly that he first applied at age 25 to the Volunteer Center Board Bank in Howard County.  When this effort got no response, he filled out a second form in which he omitted his age.

From that start, Coale five years later received the inaugural Leadership Council Award from the Community Foundation of Howard County. He was later elected to the Columbia Association Council where he took an active role in the plan to redesign Symphony Woods.

Listed on Coale’s web site is an impressive array of endorsements from organizations that are central to progressive politics, including the Howard County Education Association, the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, NOW, Equality Maryland, and the AFL-CIO. That’s certainly the kind of support needed by a candidate running in a county that has been trending more and more Democratic in recent years.

Yet, when you talk to Coale, he comes across as a pragmatic problem solver, not a political ideologue.  When I asked him what his priorities would be if elected to the House of Delegates, he started with the need to develop a cooperative state and county plan to deal with the perennial problem of flooding in Ellicott City. He used the failure to make progress on this issue in the past as an example of the “tone deafness” of some representatives in Annapolis to the needs of middle class families.

He mentioned other priorities, including providing protections for the elderly from creditors and sales people and the importance of changing Maryland law to allow tax credits for tuition payments. These positions suggest Coale would be a member of the House of Delegates focused on representation of the very concrete needs of Howard County residents.

His opponent starts with a significant advantage in name recognition. Bob Flanagan served three terms in the House of Delegates before becoming State Secretary of Transportation under Republican Governor Bob Ehrlich. That job lasted four years and certainly had Flanagan in the spotlight much of the time.

Since the end of the Ehrlich Administration, Flanagan’s practice of law has been interrupted twice.  Four years ago, he ran but lost to Courtney Watson for a County Council seat.  This year, he is again seeking public office.

A reasonable question might be why is he running again. On his website, he touts his experience in dealing with transportation issues and promises to be a watchdog in Annapolis. That sounds like he is predicting that Anthony Brown will be the next governor.

Flanagan has the basic problem of a Republican running in an overwhelmingly Democratic state and increasingly Democratic county. To have any chance of winning, he has to avoid mentioning his positions on issues like marriage equality and gun control. He also has to decide whether he will embrace the candidacy of Larry Hogan and the views of national Republicans, many of which are anathema to Marylanders. More significantly, however, is that if Flanagan were elected, he would have no influence in Annapolis.  The most he can promise is be to be annoying.

Coale on the other hand has the potential to become a significant and influential member of the House of Delegates.  He is smart, has shown that he can work effectively with others, and reflects much better than Flanagan the changing nature of Howard County. 

The choice for voters in District 9B is very straightforward:  Look to the past or look to the future.

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.