By Josh Kurtz
Kimberly McCoy Burns, chief of staff at the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation and a familiar and well-connected figure in the state politics, is planning to run for Anne Arundel County Council in 2018.
Assuming she wins the 1st District GOP nomination, Burns – who only recently became a Republican – would take on County Councilman Peter Smith (D), who is seeking a second full term.
Burns told Maryland Matters that she is running because she believes the north county district, which she called “Anne Arundel’s stepchild,” is being underserved, especially considering it is home to such economic powerhouses as BWI Airport and the Maryland Live! Casino. She cited the taxes and revenues that the district’s residents and institutions generate for the county.
“I don’t think we’re seeing a lot of the benefits to the community that we ought to be seeing,” she said.
Burns is kicking off her campaign with a breakfast fundraiser on March 23 at Italia’s Corner Café in Glen Burnie. She estimated that she’ll need about $75,000 to run a competitive campaign.
In an interview this week, Smith, who won his seat narrowly in 2014, welcomed Burns to the race.
“Anyone has the ability to run for whatever office they choose, so I applaud her for putting herself out there,” he said.
Burns brings an impressive political pedigree to the race for one of the most competitive county council districts in the state. It’s a hub of old-line conservative Democrats who have divided their loyalties between both political parties for years, largely opting for Democrats in local and state legislative races but preferring the GOP in statewide contests and at the presidential level. Smith won his 2014 race by just 288 votes over Republican Bill Heine, a relative newcomer to Maryland, even as Gov. Larry Hogan (R) was racking up big vote totals there.
Burns, 53, is the daughter of former state Del. Dennis McCoy (D), who represented northwest Baltimore in Annapolis for a dozen years in the 1970s and 1980s. McCoy was an ally of William Donald Schaefer, and Burns considers her father and the late governor and Baltimore mayor to be her political mentors and role models.
McCoy, she said, “is my chief cheerleader. It’s kind of generational. I learned a lot from my dad. I’ve learned a lot about integrity. I’ve learned a lot about community service.”
The Schaefer era, Burns said, taught her “the importance of engendering a real sense of pride and empowerment in the community” – something, she said, that has been lacking under Smith.
Burns and her father worked together as contract lobbyists for 17 years in Annapolis. It was there that she met her future husband, Del. Michael Burns (R), who represented Dist. 32 – some of the same territory as the county council’s 1st District – from 1995 to 1999. The couple live in Linthicum and have two teenaged daughters.
After lobbying, Kim Burns became president of Maryland Business for Responsive Government, then worked in the office of business relations at BWI-Thurgood Marshall Airport. She has been the top aide to DLLR Secretary Kelly Schulz since the early days of the Hogan administration.
Burns said she does not expect to have to leave her day job while she is a candidate. She said she has consulted with state ethics officials and has meticulously researched the dos and don’ts of being a candidate while holding a high position in state government.
This won’t be the first time that she’s had to pay close attention to arcane state regulations. When she and Mike Burns became a couple and planned their 1996 wedding, they had to make sure they didn’t run afoul of state rules limiting the amount of money lobbyists could spend trying to influence lawmakers (see one account of their dilemma here: http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1996-10-12/news/1996286002_1_mccoy-legislators-and-lobbyists-burns).
Burns’ conversion from Democrat to Republican speaks volumes about the erosion of Democratic support in key Baltimore suburbs and exurbs. Burns was always a moderate Democrat – she was vice president of the Maryland chapter of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council in the 1990s (then-Del. Bruce Poole, who recently stepped down as Maryland Democratic chairman, was DLC chapter president at the time). But she said she finally decided to leave the party after watching the presidential nomination fight between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and cringing when the candidates could not say how they planned to pay for their ambitious promises.
“I saw a Democratic Party that I couldn’t identify,” she said. “I saw a party that frankly had left me.”
But Burns said she does not plan to run an ideological campaign – on the theory that partisan issues are rarely a factor in local government.
Burns also said she would not feel comfortable asking Hogan or Schulz to campaign for her. But it is clear that she is banking on Hogan’s popularity aiding her bid, saying she wanted to take advantage of “a very exciting opportunity to be part of real change in this state.”
Even if the district is gradually turning away from Democrats, Smith comes to the race with certain strengths. He’s a military man in a district with a big military presence – an official at the Defense Department and a 16-year Marine Corps veteran who remains a captain in the Marine Corps reserves.
Smith disputed the criticism that he hasn’t been aggressive enough promoting the district’s interests with other county leaders.
“I’ve been out there,” he said. “I still feel like I have a lot to offer.”
Smith said he has detected renewed interest in politics around the county, thanks in part to Donald Trump’s election as president – which, he argued, works to his advantage.
“Folks are now animated and getting involved,” he said.
Susan O’Brien, a Democratic strategist active in Anne Arundel politics, said, “There’s no harder campaigner than Pete Smith.” The councilman, she said, has a loyal following throughout the county that will come to his aid.
Despite certain advantages that come with incumbency, Smith does not have a significant head start on the fundraising front. As of mid-January, he reported just $10,775 in his campaign account after raising more than $12,000 in the previous year.
Smith is having a breakfast fundraiser on March 28 at The Hotel at Arundel Preserve.
With two GOP councilmembers termed out in 2018, Anne Arundel Republicans, who hold a 4-3 advantage on the council, may try to sink some resources into Burns’ race. That’s because Democrats believe they have a chance of flipping the 2nd District seat now held by retiring Council Chairman John Grasso (R), where Allison Pickard, a popular former school board member, is likely to be their nominee.
No matter what happens in these competitive races, the Anne Arundel council will look significantly different after the next election. Four of the seven council members – Republicans Grasso, Derek Fink and Jerry Walker and Democrat Chris Trumbauer – have hit their two-term limit.
Walker this week announced his intention to run for a House seat in District 33, where there are three Republican incumbents, and Fink could be in the mix for something in District 31.
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