Volume 14, Issue 41 ~ October 12 - October 18, 2006

Neck and Neck toward the House of Delegates

Is Sue Kullen running fast enough to keep her job at the State House representing Calvert County?

Calvert County Commission president David Hale, her challenger, is tight on her heels.

by Sandra Olivetti Martin, Bay Weekly Editor, and Bay Weekly Staff

You could excuse Del. Sue Kullen for looking a tad weary when she arrived at a Democratic Party picnic at King’s Landing Park in Calvert County Sunday.

She’d been to at least seven events in the last day, among them community parties, a biker get-together and a farmers’ market stop-by. She’d just raced north after fulfilling a promise to cook for the Optimist Club at a Solomons event that wasn’t even in her district, 27B.

Oh, and in between she’d baked one of her devilish Tommy Bahama pina colada cakes, adorned with can’t-blow-out-candles, which she presented on the occasion of the 25th birthday of her campaign manager, Kelly DiRocco.

“Kids can’t eat it; it’s chock full of rum,” she joked.

In the heavily watched, close-by-all-accounts delegate’s race between Kullen and Calvert County Commission president David Hale, you might not know at first blush who’s the challenger. Especially if you ate too much of Kullen’s cake.

Two years ago, Kullen was appointed to her seat when long-time delegate George Owings, a Democrat, was picked by Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich to head his Department of Veterans Affairs.

Ehrlich was not only dabbing bipartisan paint on his administration. Removing the popular Owings was a calculated opportunity to open up a seat for Maryland’s rising GOP. No one potentially filled the bill as well as the youthful and ambitious Hale, who campaigns under the slogan Hale Yes.

Thus, this Calvert County district — which stretches from the Anne Arundel County line down to Port Republic, omitting only Dunkirk — became highly prized turf in the Republicans’ 14-Five strategy. As Republicans see it, if they wrest away 14 House seats and five Senate seats from Democratic control, they would be able to avoid Democratic veto overrides in the event of a second Ehrlich administration.

So Kullen, a trailblazer for Calvert County’s gender politics, became a marked woman forced into permanent campaign mode.

“This is my campaign to lose,” she said at a fundraiser last month. “Because as the first woman ever to represent Calvert County, everybody is after me. There’s a good-ol’-boy network that doesn’t like skirts in politics.”

Good thing the indefatigable Kullen, 46 — who had worked as an advocate for the disabled — loves campaigning and community events.

On the other hand, Hale, 43, bided his time before leaping into the autumnal campaign fray with an advertising blitz and a less frenetic public schedule away from county business and his information technology company, which does heavy, classified business with the FBI.

He had the luxury of name recognition from seven-plus years as a commissioner, plus a “fully-funded campaign,” thanks in part to friendly energy interests and his own checkbook ($41,842 by his own count).

“I made a decision to do my commission job, which keeps me in the media and the public eye, and then when the [Sept. 12] primary was done, jump in. The average man and woman going to work every day is not paying much attention,” he said, “but in the last weeks I think they will.”

By most accounts, Kullen and Hale are both competent, appealing, hard-working sorts who could rise even higher than delegate. But in style, not to mention gender and party, they offer clear and different visions. They live far apart, too: Kullen resides along Chesapeake Bay at the district’s southern edge; Hale lives in a wooded retreat in the district’s northwestern end.

Kullen has focused heavily on Chesapeake Bay and water quality issues in Annapolis, winning passage of first-step legislation to curb allowable levels of Bay-choking nitrogen pollution into the Patuxent River. (Her bill was watered down in the Senate.) She notes that she engineered 16 of 18 bills through the House, a success record no doubt assisted by having powerful allies.

She won bookend endorsements from the Maryland State Teacher’s Association and the National Rifle Association. She calls herself a political moderate, noting her support for a third reactor at Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Plant while labeling some in her party hypocrites for opposing nuclear energy while advocating cleaner energy.

At a fundraiser recently, Kullen was taken to task by several Democrats for declaring that Sen. John Kerry, her party’s presidential nominee two years ago, didn’t excite her.

“People in this county don’t want somebody on the screaming left or the screaming right. They want the common-sense middle,” she replied.

Like Kullen, Hale typically avoids partisan politics even as he pushes conservative themes and his devotion to free-market economics.

“I believe Maryland is sliding into socialism. One guy can’t stop it, but I’ll be a voice pulling us back to the center,” he told Bay Weekly.

Hale says to restore the Bay that he would go to where the problems lie, bargaining with polluters. When it comes to growth management, he says that his approach in Annapolis might surprise the free-marketeers in his party.

“Growth puts you on a treadmill, and you’ll never catch up. You can’t keep schools and roads and fire and police running fast enough if you can’t slow down growth. We’ve done that [on the commission.] Republicans might accuse me of sounding like a Democrat on this, but there are some things we have to fight,” he said.

Notable in Hale’s campaign receipts are donations from developers and at least three executives of Dominion Energy–Cove Point Liquefied Natural Gas facility, among them $2,000 from Paul Koonce, the Richmond-based company’s head of transmission.

Hale, who has been a staunch supporter of the company’s pipeline expansion in Calvert County, insists that big-ticket contributors do not buy access to him.

“Nobody owns me. The money chain leads people down the wrong track,” he said. “They invest in me because I am willing, no matter where you stand on an issue, to sit down like this and talk to you.”

Southern Calvert delegate and House Republican whip Anthony O’Donnell believes that Hale’s business-friendly approach is right for Calvert and for the General Assembly.

“He knows that we can’t raise taxes every time we want to solve a problem. He would not be someone who would support the agenda of Speaker [Michael] Busch, like his opponent appears to be. I think he would be a welcome addition to the legislature because he would bring some balance,” O’Donnell said.

By the same token, some Republicans were put off by Dominion’s aggressive expansion. Among them is Donna Wilson, who was so impressed by Kullen’s insistence on environmental safeguards that she sponsored a fundraiser last month on Kullen’s behalf. For Wilson, attitudes toward the big energy company crystallized the difference between the two candidates.

Gene Pitrof, a lawyer in Calvert County and a Democrat, said that he, too, was distressed by what he regarded as the Hale-led commission’s uncritical support of Dominion’s expansion.

Pitrof, who slipped Kullen a check at the picnic Sunday, acknowledged that in Hale, Kullen has a tough challenger. But in two years on the job, he said, Kullen has showed him more than the ability to move fast and make friends.

“She’s got a head on her shoulders,” Pitrof said.

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