With just 366 days to go until Election Day, the intrigue, political feuding and behind-the-scenes maneuvering in the city of Frederick are intensifying.
Oh, sure, there's this Bush vs. Kerry thing Tuesday.
But people in Frederick, or at least the political set, already are fixating on next year's mayoral election involving Mayor Jennifer P. Dougherty, the city's first female mayor. And the line of possible challengers from both parties -- inspired mainly by the iron-handed style that has earned Dougherty admirers and foes -- is growing.
On the Republican side, Alderman Joseph W. Baldi, who has practically trademarked his bow tie and a genial, "aw-shucks" approach to governing, has all but made his candidacy official in recent weeks. But even admirers who contrast his style with Dougherty's suggest that Baldi also can appear indecisive. He sounded, however, as if he had made up his mind about running, even if he has not filed.
"I'm the only person I know that's really serious about putting together a group and trying to do it," he said last week.
Among the Democrats, the possible roster is longer. Former four-term mayor Ronald N. Young, who assumed the office in 1973 when he was 32, acknowledged that he is seriously considering running.
Del. Galen R. Clagett (D-Frederick) and Alan E. Imhoff, a former vice chairman of the Planning Commission who has thrice run for city office without success, also have sent out feelers. Also rumored to be interested is James S. Grimes, whom Dougherty ousted from office.
Standing in the wings, meanwhile, is Alderman William G. Hall, who has had frequent dust-ups with the mayor, including a tempestuous meeting at which he called her a "dictator." Likewise, Michael L. Cady, vice president of the Frederick Board of County Commissioners, has adopted a wait-and-see approach. Alderman David G. Lenhart, Dougherty's chief foe and long considered a possible rival for the office, is said by members of both parties to be thinking about state office.
"I think there is an element in Frederick that would love to see Mayor Dougherty defeated next year," said Thomas G. Slater, chairman of the Frederick County Democratic Central Committee. Slater dismissed the Republicans as plotters from the ousted Grimes faction.
As for the Democrats, Slater, saying he must remain neutral as party head, also acknowledged that Dougherty can be seen either as someone hard to work with or "a tough broad who gets things done."
Said his Republican counterpart, Chuck Jenkins: "My read is, there's going to be an attempt by both parties to get her out of there. I think it's because of the way she conducts business in City Hall."
Some say the keen interest in next year's mayoralty campaign right now is a symptom of the political fever gripping the country over the campaign between President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). Others say the city's political jockeying is nothing unusual at least 18 months before an election.
Dougherty, in a telephone interview, dismissed the political maneuvering as part of the "silly season" before a big election. She also embraced her reputation as a battler, saying she has no regrets fighting for what she believes.
"Is it combative to speak up when things are wrong?" she asked, citing her efforts to force the Army's Fort Detrick to clean up long-buried toxins on the Frederick base. "My style is demanding. There's no question about that. I'm proud of that."
Among the successes she lists are striking a fair agreement with the county to obtain a supply of water during the drought and a tough new ordinance that revised the method of parceling out water to new developments. She also credited her administration with reviving business on Route 40, known as the Golden Mile, jump-starting development along Carroll Creek and creating a network of neighborhood advisory councils.
Responding to criticism that she has raised taxes and fees while hiring more people in her office, she said her staff is no larger than her predecessor's staff.
Dougherty, who owns two businesses in Frederick, said she treats city residents as she does her restaurant patrons: "They want what they want when they want it, at a fair price."
But possible challengers say Dougherty's successes have come despite, not because of, an autocratic style.
"She has a very strong, in-your-face attitude of, 'It's my way or the highway,' " Baldi said. He also said her pugnacity can really be pettiness in disguise. He cited, for example, Dougherty's filing a complaint last year with the state Open Meetings Compliance Board against him, Lenhart and Hall. Dougherty said the three violated the state Open Meetings Act by meeting with Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele at a reception with the Frederick County Chamber of Commerce. The board found no violation.
"I've personally witnessed her walking up and insulting people," Young said.
Young was a popular mayor until he wasn't, with some at the time saying he had stayed too long. Now 64, Young is considered by members of both parties as a strong possible contender, even though talk of his candidacy next year has been clouded by questions of whether he would fulfill the three-year residency requirement on the city's books.
Young said he moved into city limits about five months ago, after living for several years in a home on its border. Young said he was undeterred by a possible challenge to his residency.
"I've had literally hundreds of people approaching me" about a mayoral bid, Young said. Young, who is town manager for Indian Head in Charles County, said the mayor's reputation for scrapping has traveled far and wide.
"Every place I go, I hear, 'What's going on up there?' " he said.
Alderman Lenhart, meanwhile, is pushing to reduce the residency requirement to one year, while state Sen. Alex X. Mooney (R-Frederick) obtained an opinion from the Maryland attorney general that laws requiring more than a year of residency could be open to legal challenge. Repeated calls to Lenhart were not returned.
Clagett, 62, also acknowledged considering a run for mayor. But he said he declined because the heavy time commitment could conflict with his commercial real estate and management business. It also might pose a conflict, since development is a fiercely debated issue in the city and in Frederick County. And, finally, he said he was happy to clear the way for his old friend Young to run.
As for Grimes, in an interview last week, the former Republican mayor talked as if he were fired up to sweep Dougherty from office.
"I think we need to take our City Hall back," Grimes said. "I just think it's going in the wrong direction. There's no civility in City Hall today."
But when pressed about his own plans, Grimes was coy. "One should never say they don't have an interest," he said. Grimes also would encounter residency problems since he now lives outside the city.
Hall, who recently converted to the GOP after years in the Democratic Party, said he is not interested in the office. But he also said he would not rule out running for mayor if no one else stepped forward.
"To be honest with you, I don't want to close any doors," Hall said.
Likewise, county commissioner Cady was keeping his options open. Cady, a Republican, said he likes his job and also likes Baldi. Cady said he might consider running for mayor if no other viable Republican candidate files to run.
As for Imhoff, who retired after a 32-year career at AT&T, he said he would decide soon. He has run twice for alderman, and he placed third in the primary against Dougherty three years ago.
"I decided the day I lost the primary I would run again. I'm leaning towards doing it," Imhoff said last week. But Imhoff, who has battled prostate cancer, said he would not make a final decision until January, after he consults with his doctors.
"There's no rush," he said. "There's also a little election next week."