Baltimore County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen had no re-election opponent in yesterday's primary, but the upset loss of two incumbent county councilmen and a tight victory for a third veteran has put him on notice.
Freshman incumbent Dale T. Volz, D-7th, a strong Rasmussen supporter, lost big to Donald Mason's strident appeal to cut spending and property taxes, while voter concern over burgeoning development helped novice Vincent Gardina beat the council's most senior member, Norman W. Lauenstein, D-5th.
Lauenstein was first elected in 1974, the last time an incumbent council member lost an election. Volz suffered a humiliating loss, finishing third behind both his challengers and garnering less than half the winner's total.
Catonsville's councilman, Ronald B. Hickernell, D-1st, won, but by a slim majority of less than 600 votes. He lost several precincts very near his own home. He said the upsets and close votes contain a warning for Rasmussen, who will compete against Republican primary winner Roger Hayden in the November general election.
"In a way, it's a referendum on all incumbents," said Hickernell, a 12-year council veteran. "It's a referendum for Dennis as well. He must work very, very hard" in the general election.
Rasmussen himself was having none of the gloomy prophesy.
"I feel very comfortable. I don't think the council losses are a signal to me," he said. The executive said that the low turnout actually worked against the incumbents, because they failed to get their supporters to the polls, while several active challengers' supporters turned out.
"I'm prepared to run a strong race," he said of the November election battle with Hayden, a former school board president who changed from Democrat to Republican to make his first race for political office. Charles P. Harbaugh finished second in the Republican primary, and the party's 1986 nominee, Robert Petr, finished third.
Incumbent council members Barbara F. Bachur, D-4th; Melvin G. Mintz, D-2nd, and C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-3rd, handily turned back challengers, although Bachur will likely face a tougher contest in November against Republican nominee Douglas Riley, a Towson attorney.
Councilman William R. Evans, D-6th, had no challenger in the primary.
Hayden said his travels around Baltimore County yesterday showed him the path to take in the Nov. 6 general election.
"We saw at all the polls a tremendous dissatisfaction with the current administration," he said. Rising assessments have aroused the voters, he said, despite executive Rasmussen's own criticism of the property tax and his action with the council last spring to limit future assessment increases to 4 percent.
Assessments are up and "frivolous" spending by the administration has angered voters, Hayden said. A native of the Dundalk-Edgemere area, Hayden said he will work to capitalize on the strong anti-tax vote there that dumped florist Dale Volz after only one term in office.
A stunned Volz said that his loss is a personal victory for his family. "I get back my business and my family," he said of the time demands of public office.
He said he's "not really sure what happened. Obviously, there was a ground swell of opinion that taxes are too high. Unfortunately, people won't benefit in that. It's mirrors," Volz said of the anti-tax movement's demands to cut spending and cut taxes.
Mason, a single-minded foe of rising property tax bills for the past 10 years, sounded a conciliatory note. He would not commit supporting Rasmussen in the general election, but he did say he will not support the GOP's Hayden. He said he hopes to talk with Rasmussen and not become a council maverick if he wins in November. Mason still must face Lawrence O. Williams Jr., a Republican, in the general election.
"I want to say there's room for compromise," Mason said late last night after his clear victory. He said he hopes to bring his theories about more efficient government and spending cuts to all the people of Baltimore County if he wins the election with the more change taking place in the next local election in 1994.