Howard County Board of Education Chairman Courtney Watson ended speculation this week about her political ambitions with the announcement that she will seek the Democratic nomination to run for the District 1 County Council seat. Watson also had been considering a run for county executive in 2006.
Watson, who won her first bid for elected office when she ran for the school board in 2002, said she decided that the District 1 seat in northeast Howard "was where I could make the most impact." The seat is held by Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, a Republican who wants to succeed County Executive James N. Robey.
Republican Tony Salazar, an Ellicott City lawyer, also has filed as a District 1 council candidate. Salazar, 46, made an unsuccessful bid to unseat U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D) in the 2004 7th District race.
In District 4 this week, another school board member, Mary Kay Sigaty, began her campaign to succeed Ken Ulman (D-West Columbia), who also is running for county executive. Columbia Council President Joshua Feldmark is also considering a run for the Democratic nomination for that seat and is expected to make an announcement in January.
With all five seats up for grabs in November 2006, the County Council is already drawing candidates who say they want to help affluent Howard better manage its high growth pressures.
"We have less and less land," said Watson, 43. "We don't have the luxury of just throwing up subdivision after subdivision anymore."
Watson, an insurance company executive and mother of three children, highlighted her leadership on the school board.
"I have experience going onto an elected body and helping organize and manage and get people working together," she said. "I think that experience would translate to the County Council."
She noted that in her four years on the board, the school system opened five new schools. "It's hard to plan them, build them or fund them any faster than that," she said.
Salazar points to a history of support for the GOP in District 1. Merdon's predecessor, Darrel E. Drown, also was a Republican. He also pointed to his strong showing in District 1 neighborhoods in 2004 when he ran for Congress. Salazar, like Watson, thinks that managing growth should be the top council issue.
"We have to make sure there is that balance and proper respect for neighborhoods when making zoning decisions," said Salazar, who is deputy general counsel for Provident Bank and the father of three children. "People are worried about change and increasing density."
Salazar said the council, which has three Democrats and two Republicans, appears to "just follow the county executive." Because of term limits, Robey cannot seek reelection. He is running for the state Senate.
"I don't think they are taking the initiative in a lot of areas," Salazar said. "I'd like to change that."
In announcing her campaign for the District 4 seat on Monday, Sigaty, a Democrat, pledged to focus on maintaining high-quality schools, planning for growth and increasing attention to government services for often-ignored groups.
"I think that a neglected area of the way we do business is all of our human services," she said. "Personally, I think that we need to be paying attention to the needs of the less fortunate in our county, folks who are in real need."
Sigaty, 55, an artist and theater consultant, said more resources and money should be devoted to address substance abuse, homelessness, domestic violence and mental health problems.
She also expressed support for a full ban on smoking in the county's bars and restaurants, a measure proposed this fall by Robey but opposed by a majority of the council.
In 2002, Sigaty ran for the seat and was narrowly defeated by Ulman in the primary.
Feldmark confirmed that he probably would run for Ulman's seat as well but said he wouldn't make an official announcement until January.
"I think we need to make sure that we don't grow faster than our school and roads and infrastructure can handle," he said. "The development of downtown is probably the biggest issue facing the district."
Feldmark, 30, a consultant for nonprofit groups, has spent three years on the village board of Wilde Lake and five years on the Columbia Council, which he also chaired for two years.
In District 3, Donna Thewes is campaigning to succeed Guy Guzzone (D-Southeast County), who is seeking election to the House of Delegates.
Thewes, 46, a Republican who lives in Laurel, said the council needs to make sure it is spending the county's money appropriately.
"We've raised our taxes five times in the past seven years," she said. "That's ridiculous. That's not fiscally responsible." Thewes, a substitute teacher and former community liaison for the county's police department, said her main concerns are responding to rapid growth and improving the county's schools.