Monday, November 21, 2011

Howard County Executive Ulman: Yes, He Ken?

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman is one of those guys in politics who seems to have accomplished a lot in a very short time.

A former Glendening Administration aide, Ulman, now 37, was elected to the Howard County Council in 2002, springboarding to the County Executive’s office just four years later. Convincingly reelected in 2010, Ulman has, by all accounts, been the popular and successful leader of a diverse and affluent jurisdiction. So, it’s no surprise that people would start speculating as to his future plans.
And, recently, the transparency of some of Ulman’s own actions have inflamed such speculation.
The newly installed head of the Maryland Association of Counties (MACo), Ulman has been traveling around the state meeting local officials. One day he’s in Montgomery County discussing education, the next he is in southern Maryland discussing BRAC, budget and land use issues.
No doubt Ulman’s MACo responsibilities require such interactions with local officials. But slapping the word “tour” on it and scheduling sit down interviews with local press gives the entire effort a “nudge wink, wink nudge” feel.
And, when the inevitable question about Ulman’s future plans comes up, he handles it with the kind of coy, modest, "It's very flattering to be asked that question” answer you would expect from an upwardly mobile, ambitious politico.
Now that Ulman has signaled if not outright declared his intentions, one has to wonder which tract of the political landscape Ulman’s campaign will occupy.
Comptroller Peter Franchot is cleverly positioning himself as the alternative to the Martin O’Malley establishment. Attorney General Doug Gansler embraces issues which have historically resonated with liberal primary voters such as the environment.  Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown is relying on his connection to the O’Malley political establishment, his Prince George’s County base, and his ties to black voters.
So where would that leave Ulman? I see two potential options.
First, Ulman could run as a good government manager far removed from business as usual in Annapolis. Because he will not be a direct player in some of the painful taxing and spending decisions the governor and legislature will have to make, he can focus on quietly building his own record and raising the funds needed to market it around the state.
Second, Ulman could openly position himself as the second coming of Martin O’Malley. Two things lead me to believe that he may embrace this option.
When Martin O’Malley became mayor of Baltimore, he quickly worked to define himself as a young innovator willing to embrace new strategies of governance such as CitiStat.
Look at Ulman’s recent press clips and news releases and you will observe a similar emphasis on innovations outside the daily purview of local government, including support for electric vehicle charging stations, solar power, and new email- and text-reliant communications tools.
None of these initiatives is significant by itself. But taken together they point to a politico trying to build a brand.
The timing is revelatory, too.
During a time of budgetary restraint, why would an elected official emphasize such worthwhile but ultimately deferrable initiatives unless he was trying to make a larger point?
Second, I have been hearing that some of O’Malley’s stalwarts in the lobbying community have, in terms of their early fundraising, started to coalesce around Ulman.
Unfortunately, it won’t be possible to prove the existence of this trend until the next fundraising reports come out. The most recent reports (as cited in this article) are a year old. They speak to what each potential candidate had in the bank as of the end of the last election cycle, and not where their money is coming from now.
If Ulman plans to run as O’Malley redux, the strategy carries with it some risk.
The last three two-term governors suffered from voter fatigue by the time they left office. Governor Hughes lost the Democratic primary for U. S. Senate in 1986. Governor Schaefer’s approval ratings suffered during his often tumultuous tenure. And Governor Glendening’s unpopularity contributed to the election of Maryland’s first GOP governor in 36 years.
If history is any guide, Governor O’Malley (whose approval ratings remain 52 percent according to the latest Gonzales poll) may not be immune to similar forces. Consequently, gubernatorial aspirant Ulman’s image may suffer should he claim the O’Malley’s heir mantle.
Aligning with O’Malley certainly helps Ulman in terms of fundraising and organizational support. But it negates his ability to run credibly as an outsider during what is shaping up to be a change election cycle.
In any event, Ulman is certainly an appealing candidate, so it will be interesting for political handicappers like me to watch how he positions himself. Stay tuned.

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