While Democrats are widely expected to fare well in statewide races this month, contests for the top jobs in two Baltimore suburbs are shaping up to be more contested.

In both Anne Arundel and Howard counties, where local seats have flipped between Democrats and Republicans in recent elections, county executive races have pitted Democratic incumbents against GOP challengers. Economic concerns and crime appear to be the dominant issues — the same issues that are driving leads in the polls for Republicans across the country.

In Anne Arundel County, Democratic incumbent Steuart Pittman — a South County horse farmer and trainer who was elected county executive in 2018, in his first run for public office — faces Republican challenger Jessica Haire, a one-term County Council member who is married to the chairman of the Maryland Republican Party.

In Howard County, Democratic incumbent Calvin Ball is seeking to stave off a challenge from Republican Allan Kittleman, the man he unseated in 2018. The Democrat has previously served as chair and vice chair of the County Council, a body he served three terms on as a council member. Kittleman served as county executive from 2014 to 2018, and before that was a state senator.

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“It’s going to be a rough statewide cycle for Republicans in Maryland, and I think there are a lot of Republicans who are really holding onto some hope that these counties perhaps produce some bright spots,” said Mileah Kromer, a professor of political science at Goucher College.

Both Haire and Kittleman have distanced themselves from the GOP’s far-right gubernatorial nominee, Dan Cox, who is lagging far behind Democrat Wes Moore in the polls. The two Republican county executive candidates have also raised sufficient money to compete for some of the moderate and conservative Democrats who have given the counties their purple hue, Kromer said.

While the races are likely to be the most competitive county elections in Maryland, the Republican candidates still face some challenges.

“It is still going to be really tough, because incumbents are far more difficult to unseat,” Kromer said. “But it doesn’t mean they can’t.”

Anne Arundel County

In Anne Arundel, a sprawling county south of Baltimore, Pittman is seeking reelection four years after being swept into office as part of the Democrats’ blue wave. Pittman previously coordinated national programs for the National Low Income Housing Coalition and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.

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He was one of the first leaders in the state to endorse Moore, who recently appeared in an ad filmed at Pittman’s farm, alongside some of the candidate’s horses.

Wes Moore, Democratic Gubernatorial candidate, speaks to supporters at R. House on July 19.
Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pitttman, left, was an early supporter of Democratic gubernatorial nominee Wes Moore, shown here speaking to supporters on July 19, 2022. (Brian O'Doherty for The Baltimore Banner)

Pittman’s campaign has touted several accomplishments: the hiring of 100 new police officers and 500 more teachers, the county’s new AAA bond rating, and infrastructure investments to address traffic issues in the fast-growing county of 590,000 residents. He’s also won endorsements from the police and teachers unions.

“It was a real shift in our county from what we had over the last four years,” said Pittman, referring to his Republican predecessor, Steven Schuh. “We had to catch up with the growth of our population and start to manage our growth effectively.”

Pittman has attacked his challenger for accepting campaign donations associated with the Halle Companies, a developer that is pushing to construct a landfill in Odenton. The donations totaled at least $170,000 according to an analysis by the Capital Gazette, but community groups estimate that additional associated donations bring that number to over $250,000. Haire has publicly stated that she is opposed to the landfill.

Pittman has also criticized Haire for voting against all four of his budget proposals, which included additional funding for police and education.

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“She wants to slash and burn the revenues for this county but won’t say where the cuts are coming from,” said Pittman. “People don’t tell us they want less services and less infrastructure — they want more.”

Haire is mounting a campaign based on pledges to cut property and income taxes, prioritize funding for public safety and modernize county government.

In several recent television spots, Haire has promoted herself as a lawyer and civil engineer who will get things done. “We don’t need big promises and even bigger budgets — we need better local leadership,” she said in one ad.

She’s attacked Pittman for failing to spend taxpayer funds, a claim he’s rebutted by arguing that the county’s budget surplus helped the county achieve its AAA bond rating. And she’s accused him of accepting donations from developers building high-density projects. Pittman’s campaign did not respond directly to this accusation, but noted to The Baltimore Banner that he is a “proud supporter of dense, transit-oriented development.”

The county administration has “ballooned the budget by over $300 million,” Haire said at an October debate. “And yet everywhere I go, folks in their community don’t feel safe.”

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The County Council in June adopted Pittman’s $2.16 billion budget for fiscal 2023, a 7.4% increase from the previous fiscal year.

Haire’s campaign did not respond to a request for an interview from The Baltimore Banner.

The Haire campaign has raised about $1.58 million — including $575,000 that the candidate loaned her own campaign — while Pittman’s campaign has raked in about $1.18 million since mid-January 2021, according to campaign finance statements filed with the state through Oct. 23.

A Capital Gazette poll conducted in conjunction with a statewide Baltimore Sun Media and University of Baltimore survey shows Pittman leading the race 48% to 40% among likely voters. A survey of 468 residents conducted by Anne Arundel Community College near the end of September to Oct. 1 found a tight race.

Registered Democrats outnumber Republican by a small margin in Anne Arundel — small enough that the outcome will depend largely on turnout, said Dan Nataf, a political science professor at Anne Arundel Community College.

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And turnout could be driven by voter concern about issues that Republicans tend to run on more successfully than Democrats: economy and crime. The Anne Arundel Community College survey found that the state of the economy is a top issue for residents, with 71% citing inflation as an issue they’re “very concerned” about. Crime followed the economy as the second-most-mentioned issue among residents, with 64% in support of increased spending on public safety officers. Education and development were two other top concerns.

“The issues that seem to drive this election puts the wind behind the backs of Republicans more than Democrats,” Nataf said.

Howard County

In neighboring Howard County, voters can choose between two well-known figures: Democratic incumbent Ball and his Republican predecessor, Kittleman.

Ball, who in 2018 became the first Black elected Howard County executive, has campaigned on a record that includes providing record funding for K-12 education, leading a swift COVID-19 vaccination effort, and launching initiatives to support small businesses.

“We’ve made incredible progress on the priorities that define what Howard County represents,” Ball said.

Kittleman has run what he calls a “grassroots” campaign to get his old job back. He is using a new program called the Citizens’ Election Fund, which requires him to accept donations no larger than $250 in exchange for matching funds from the county. Even his decision to run came from the ground up, he said.

“I had no real plans to run — people started coming to me,” said Kittleman, whose website notes that his father once served as president of the Howard County NAACP.

He said he is running on issues that residents have identified as their top concerns: economic strain, crime, and school safety.

“Everybody I talk to talks about increasing taxes,” said Kittleman, arguing that tax hikes implemented during Ball’s tenure have “made it much harder for people to deal with the effects of inflation.” According to Ball’s campaign, property and income tax rates have not increased during Ball’s term in office.

Kittleman has promised to cut taxes, strengthen community-based policing and reinstate law enforcement in city schools.

His campaign has relied on aggressive messaging against his opponent, claiming that violent crime has gone up and schools have become less safe during his tenure — a charge Ball flatly denies.

“Mr. Kittleman is running to be the Republican standard bearer for Howard County when he tries to scare people about crime,” the Democrat said, adding that violent crime has decreased by around 40% since he took office. “It’s important to look at records over rhetoric.”

Ball’s campaign has raised just over $1 million in donations since January 2021. Kittleman has raised just under $1 million during the campaign season, with around $250,000 in small donations and $700,000 in county matching funds.