Amid a severe local outbreak of National Football League fever, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman is quick to point out that among the four Democrat politicians whose names are linked to the 2014 gubernatorial race, he's the only one who roots for the NFL's one true Maryland team.
"I joke with people, I'm the only Ravens fan running," Ulman said in an interview last week, soon after filing his latest campaign finance report that showed he kept pace in 2012 fundraising with Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown.
Ulman has less than half the cash Gansler has on hand, but more than Brown and Del. Heather Mizeur, who runs a distant fourth.
Ulman stresses his Maryland credentials, his family roots in Baltimore, his University of Maryland, College Park diploma — compared with fellow Democrats Gansler, Brown and Mizeur, who were born and went to college elsewhere.
He did get a bit ahead of himself, however. Ulman may be a Ravens fan, but he's not exactly running for governor, at least not yet.
He's been raising money and showing up in places where he gets introduced as "the next governor of Maryland," but so far he's not making any announcements, and probably won't anytime soon.
Still, when he filed the campaign finance report Wednesday, he issued a statement about working for the betterment of Maryland, and he is making no secret that he's giving serious thought to trying to succeed Martin O'Malley.
Also issuing a statement in connection with her latest campaign finance report was County Councilwoman Courtney Watson, who is among those considering a run for Ulman's job when he reaches the legal limit of two four-year terms in 2014.
Watson is well ahead in the money chase among those often mentioned in talk about the next county executive race: Del. Guy Guzzone, County Councilman Calvin Ball and Republican state Sen. Allan Kittleman.
Neither Ulman nor Watson, in their prepared statements, mentioned that they have any specific office in mind.
In an interview, Ulman said he would not go into detail about his strategy as he thinks about whether to run, but he added that "it's really a sense of where the state is and what I have to bring to the table. I'm the one person considering running for governor who has governed. ….I'm running a sizable jurisdiction with a budget over a billion dollars."
Ulman's latest campaign finance report shows he raised $1.14 million in 2012 and has $2.13 million on hand.
Gansler raised $1.2 million and has $5.2 million in the bank. Brown raised $1.2 million and has $1.64 million. Mizeur, a member of the House of Delegates from Montgomery County, raised $244,000 and has nearly $350,000 available.
If the gap between Ulman and Gansler in available cash seems daunting, Ulman's political director, Colin O'Dea, said he's not worried. He noted that Gansler had money raised for a 2010 primary race that never materialized, and Ulman has kept pace with Gansler and raised more than Brown each of the last two years.
"For us it's pretty encouraging for someone who is a county executive, and raising the same amount of money as two statewide officials," O'Dea said, referring to Gansler and Brown.
How Ulman, 38, will raise his profile and potential influence in a statewide race is another matter.
Brown is from Prince George's County and Gansler is from Montgomery, which in population are, respectively, more than twice and more than three times the size of Howard.
"I think he's got an uphill battle," said Dennis Lane, a political observer and lifelong Howard County resident who writes the "Tale of Two Cities" county blog.
"He's a smart executive," said Lane, an Ulman supporter, "but we're Howard County. We're the spoiled child of Maryland."
That's a reference to the Howard litany — great schools, one of the most affluent counties in the country, home of the utopian Columbia and "one of the best places" in the U.S. to live (Columbia/Ellicott City), at least according to "Money Magazine."
In Lane's view, the glossy profile could make it difficult for the person in charge to show his executive mettle.
Or, as he puts it: "How can you screw up Howard County?"
Ulman said he's happy to be known as the guy running a place that seems too good to be true.
"If the criticism is that we're too successful, I'm happy to have that conversation," Ulman said. "Our success didn't come by accident. We've decided as a county to invest wisely in public education as an anchor to the county."
Lane's fellow political observer, Tom Coale, who writes the "HoCo Rising" blog, posits the Columbia factor as a potential boost for Ulman. Coale argues that as the redevelopment of the Columbia downtown begins and takes shape over the next few years, there will be lots of ribbons to cut, lots of photo opportunities, lots of ways for Ulman to be seen in the news in association with progress.
"Columbia can provide a free PR machine," said Coale, a lawyer who lives in Columbia.
He noted how Ulman made a media event out of his veto last month of a County Council bill on land use that was opposed by at least one statewide agricultural land preservation group, 1000 Friends of Maryland.
Rather than just sign the veto in his office in Ellicott City, Ulman brought a desk out to the Elioak Farm in Clarksville, the former home of a noted agricultural preservationist, the late state Sen. James Clark, invited the press and an assortment of farmers and environmentalists, and signed the veto there.
"That's not the way you customarily see any veto," said Coale. "That's what you do for a bill signing. He wanted to politically overpower the council."
As Ulman nurtures his aspirations, several Democrats and one Republican are considering making a run at his job.
Watson, of Ellicott City, is ahead in the money race at the moment, reporting $254,410 raised in 2012 and $374,457 on hand. The only other person mentioned as a possible contender who is close in 2012 fundraising is Kittleman, a Republican and former council member, who raised $170,655 last year and has $184,194 on hand.
Guzzone, also a former county councilman, reported raising $61,600 in 2012 and having $227,475 in the bank; Ball raised $85,425 and has $190,384 in the bank.
None is saying they're in for sure, but some are more clear than others that they're at least considering.
"I have been encouraged to run for county executive," said Watson, who is in her second term on the council. She said she would likely make her decision known "when it would be least distracting" to her work on the council.
Guzzone, who has been in the House of Delegates since 2007, said he's set a deadline for himself of the end of April to make a decision.
"The biggest thing is where I think I can do the most good and have the most impact," he said.
Also, he said, there's the matter of how much fundraising he wants to do.
"Very few people like fundraising," Guzzone said. "We all have to make a decision about how much time we want to spend on the phone calling person after person."
Kittleman, a state senator since 2004 now representing a district that includes parts of Carroll and Howard, said he'll make a decision after the General Assembly session, which ends in April.
"To leave a position I have really enjoyed in the state Senate, it's a tough decision," said Kittleman.
Although registered Democrats outnumber Republicans about 93,000 to 57,000 in Howard, and only one Republican has served as executive since the position was established 44 years ago, Kittleman said he's not worried about a partisan disadvantage.
"Any Republican in Howard County faces an uphill battle," Kittleman said. But he's buoyed by the fact that in his eight years in the Senate, "I have a record of getting a good crossover vote. … My philosophy of fiscal responsibility and social libertarianism" appeals to both Democrats and Independents, he said.
Asked about his interest in the executive position, Ball gave the most oblique response. He said he has enjoyed serving on the council these last six years, and "I am open and considering expanding that service beyond the County Council."
A lecturer at Morgan State University, Ball said he expects to make a decision by late summer and that he's pleased with his fundraising so far.
"My goal was to raise money while reaching out to folks in the community," said Ball. "I'm happy with where we are in our trajectory."