Josh Kurtz: A Conversation with Ken Ulman

By Josh Kurtz

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – It seems as if certain self-interested individuals want Howard County Executive Ken Ulman (D) to take himself out of the 2014 gubernatorial election.

But why should he, at this early stage?

As Ulman himself points out, “I have more cash on hand than anyone in the state of Maryland who had an opponent last cycle.”

That’s a reference to his surprisingly big fundraising haul in 2011 – and to Attorney General Doug Gansler, who at the beginning of this year was sitting on more than $4 million in campaign cash, thanks in part to the fact that he had no opposition in 2010.

But as the only one of the five potential Democratic candidates with executive experience, Ulman has a record to sell and a story to tell.

“I’m the only person looking at the race for governor who’s actually governed,” he said here last week during a conversation at one of the endless round of receptions for Maryland delegates to the Democratic National Convention.

Recent Maryland history has shown that that’s a pretty good jumping off point. After all, three of the last four Maryland governors were chief executives – William Donald Schaefer (Baltimore mayor), Parris Glendening (Prince George’s county executive), and Martin O’Malley (Baltimore mayor).

Of course, Howard County is nowhere near the size of Baltimore or Prince George’s, and the political bases they provided – a fact Ulman readily concedes. But under Ulman, Howard, smack in the middle of the state, is growing in size and influence.

Whether it’s a vigorous economic development record, with countless numbers of companies feeding off the National Security Agency and Fort Meade, a health care program that could serve as a model for the rest of the state, a push to expand broadband coverage throughout the region, several environmental initiatives, or record investments in education, public safety, roads, and parks and recreation, Ulman has plenty to boast about. Skeptics might point out that in an affluent place like Howard County, any politician could succeed – another point Ulman sort of concedes.

“There’s no question a county executive could not show up for work and we’d still be fine,” he said.

But Executive No Show wouldn’t have the same priorities or record of moving the county forward – success, Ulman is prepared to argue, that can be replicated around the state.

Then there are the small but important aspects of governing well, like customer service. That’s an area where Howard County agencies excel – and where the state could use some improvement.

In many respects, Ulman, who is just 38, is trying to follow the Parris Glendening path to Government House. Glendening, who Ulman once worked for, was, like Ulman, a former Maryland Association of Counties president, who used the position to travel the state, make contracts, and swap ideas for governing. Additionally, Ulman is currently the president of National Democratic County Officials – an organization, he says, that provides him with “a network of friends around the country.” Such connections are not to be underestimated.

Unless there’s a surprise entry into the Democratic gubernatorial field, Ulman has the only claim on being the “Baltimore candidate.” Gansler, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, Comptroller Peter Franchot, Del. Heather Mizeur – they’re all from the Washington suburbs.

“I joke that I’m the only Ravens fan in the race – but it’s true,” he said.

Can someone from Howard County, wedged between the city and D.C., really claim to be “Baltimore”? Maybe. Ulman is on TV in Baltimore far more often than he is in Washington. He’s in the Baltimore Sun more often than he is in the Washington Post.

But the truth is that despite their best efforts, despite the chatter about 2014 among insiders, none of these potential candidates is particularly well known around the state. Stop anyone in the street and ask them who their lieutenant governor is, who their comptroller is, and chances are you’d be greeted with a blank stare – if not outright hostility.

That’s where the money comes in. None of the potential candidates is going to come close to Gansler on the fundraising front – and they don’t necessarily have to in order to compete. Yet by clearing $1 million last year, Ulman raised eyebrows – and earned a place in the game.

“I’d be disappointed if people weren’t impressed again by my 2012 fundraising,” Ulman said.

So does he pull the trigger and run? The wise guys say he ultimately realizes that he can’t win this time around and decides to run for attorney general – where he’d have far more money than anyone else – or accepts a place on Brown’s ticket. Perhaps, not coincidentally, Ulman professes to be “very good friends” with Brown, though he allows that each of his potential rivals “has pros and cons.”

Ulman has used a team of professional consultants for his two countywide races, and he says he’ll assemble one if he decides to make a statewide bid. But he concedes that his consultant team is a bit in flux – a passing reference to the fact that his longtime pollster, Fred Yang, who is one of the best in the business, recently jumped ship and signed on with Brown (Yang has also been O’Malley’s pollster for many years). But there are other terrific pollsters in the Democratic firmament.

Like every other ambitious Maryland politician, Ulman says his chief political priority right now is re-electing President Obama, and observes that Maryland Democrats “are one big happy family right now – we’ll see how long that lasts.”

Ulman says he’ll continue contemplating his options for 2014 and will probably make a final decision fairly early in 2013.

“I love the state and want it to reach its full potential,” he said. “If I can continue to serve in a meaningful way, then I will.”

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at joshkurtz92@gmail.com.

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

The Future Is Now?

Michael Row the Boat Ashore

Influencers: The Readers Speak

Will Battaglia Run for AG in 2014?

Chrys-field

You Can Still Probably Bet Against Roscoe Bartlett

Ten Years After

Influencers, Part II

The Influencers, Part I