With a resounding victory at Tuesday's ballot box, Democrat Jan Gardner has claimed the title of first Frederick County executive, according to unofficial election totals.
At the end of the night, Gardner had drawn 53.8 percent of the vote total, while her Republican rival, Blaine Young, finished with 45.85 percent.
Gardner celebrated at Cafe 611, where disco lights flashed over a jubilant crowd that chanted her name whenever new returns rolled in and further solidified her lead. Gardner made her way to the stage shortly before 11 p.m. to accept victory, hugging crowd members as she went. During her speech, she thanked her family and others who had supported her through the campaign.
"It's the beginning of a new era, and we're in it together," said Gardner, 58, of Frederick.
Young said he always knew he would face a tough battle in the executive race and said his demeanor and past decisions hurt him.
"I was my own worst enemy," he said. "I figured that out. It's just that I figured it out too late."
Young said he congratulates Gardner and will help with the transition in county leadership in any way he can. He added that he was elected four years ago after promising that he would serve only one term.
"So the voters made sure that I kept my promise," he said.
In recent months, the county executive race turned into a fierce battle between prominent local figures, both of whom have experience on the Board of County Commissioners. Gardner's win came despite a formidable fundraising disadvantage. Young, 43, of Frederick, entered the executive race with a cash pile left over from an abandoned bid for Maryland governor and amassed more than $400,000 since then. By contrast, Gardner's campaign had taken in only about $189,000 by the time she filed her most recent campaign finance report in October.
"This proves that the citizens want to restore honesty and good government to Frederick County and that even a million dollars being spent against me didn't matter in the end. Money can't buy elections," Gardner said.
The unofficial election results show that Gardner won with 40,768 votes, and Young finished with 34,742. The final totals won't be available until election officials have tallied up provisional and absentee ballots in coming weeks. As of midday Monday, 2,874 absentee ballots had been distributed to Frederick County voters, a county election official reported.
The race for Frederick County executive marks the start of a new chapter for local government, which is transitioning from a commissioner to a charter system. As the first to hold the executive position, Gardner will help shepherd the county's changeover and flesh out the role now defined broadly by the charter.
Under the county's guiding document, the $95,000-per-year executive position comes with responsibilities like managing the county's workforce, drafting the annual budget and acting as an ambassador to state and federal leaders and to business executives eyeing the area. The county executive will also have to work closely with the seven-member council that oversees legislative decisions.
The county executive's four-year term will start Dec. 1, the date of the changeover from a commissioner-led government to a charter system.
During his campaign, Young, the sitting commissioners president, dealt with fallout from several recent decisions, such as privatizing the county's nursing and assisted living facilities and approving large housing projects.
An informal survey conducted recently by The Frederick News-Post and Hood College suggested that Gardner's supporters ranked education and growth issues as top priorities; Gardner hammered away at Young's record in these areas by charging him with developer giveaways totaling $160 million and condemning his board for underfunding public schools. On a per-student basis, county funding has stayed the same for the past six years, which include the four budgets crafted by Young's board.
His comment last year that school officials should "start buying Powerball tickets" to fund their budget plan also served as ammunition for Gardner, who used it in mailers and on the campaign trail. The quote, which appeared in The Gazette, was Young's response to a school budget that he deemed unrealistic, since it relied on a $15 million increase in county aid.
Young's campaign message centered more on the economy and taxes, areas of chief concern to his core voters. He has blasted Gardner for approving tax and fee increases during her time in office and for asking Annapolis lawmakers to raise commissioners' salaries.
During the campaign, Young also tried to link Gardner to Democrats like Gov. Martin O'Malley and President Barack Obama, hoping the association with "tax-and-spend liberals" would harm her among conservative voters.
Stephanie Cacopardo, of New Market, said she cast her vote for Gardner in hopes of curtailing the spread of new development. The agricultural property she bought more than a decade ago as a refuge is turning into an island surrounded by high-density development, such as the Casey project approved during Young's administration.
"It's never quiet now. Never, ever," she said, explaining that noisy cars are constantly traveling down local roads.
While Gardner might be able to slow development, Cacopardo doubted she can do much to avert growth that has already been approved. Cacopardo said she's looking to sell her property and move to West Virginia.
However, other local residents were more accepting of growth.
Cathy Hinkston, of New Market, said development in their area bothered her for a while, but now, she and her husband hope it will increase their home value. She and her husband are nearing retirement age, and higher property values will help them relocate, she said.
Hinkston said she voted for Young so that new development in the county will not stall.
Follow Bethany Rodgers on Twitter: @BethRodgersFNP.
Preliminary election results Tuesday showed that more than 51 percent of Frederick County's eligible voters weighed in for the gubernatorial race, a lower turnout than experienced four years ago.
The totals released Tuesday night indicated that 77,505 of 150,895 eligible voters have participated in the election. These numbers do not include absentee or provisional ballots, which will be tallied in the next couple of weeks.
About 55 percent of Frederick County's eligible voters participated in the 2010 general election. Not including absentee or provisional ballots, the turnout was about 53 percent.