The first four candidates to speak at the candidates' debate in Savage last Tuesday night sat grim-faced, looking more like condemned prisoners than party nominees.
They were not facing a hostile crowd -- in fact, no one from the public showed up. The anxiety on their faces seemed rather to reflect an unusual worry in this campaign: voter contentment.
Most of the county's voters appear so comfortble with the status quo, they feel no need to go to the polls to affirm or change things.
As one 1st District County Council voter put it, "Last election, with districting and all, there was a lot of excitement. This time, they're all incumbents -- and they've done a pretty good job."
That sounds like incumbents could rest comfortably. They can't. Despite this particular voter's satisfaction, she and many others feel no urgency about participating in this year's elections, having made their choices four years ago.
In 1986, no fewer than 11 races were without incumbents: U.S. senator, governor, attorney general, two congressional seats, county executive, state senator, state delegate and three County Council seats.
This year, there is no race without an incumbent. Three of those races are reruns -- Republicans Darrel Drown, running for the County Council in the 2nd District; Marty Madden, seeking a House of Delegates seat in District 13B; and Chris McCabe, running for state Senate in District 14, are challenging the same people who defeated them in 1986.
Only 25 percent of the electorate -- 22,985 of 92,801 registered voters -- turned out for this year's primary. While the general election is expected to generate more interest, most local candidates believe the general election numbers will not improve by much.
"I think the turnout could be as low as 30 to 35 percent," said Dennis Schrader, the Republican challenger for County Council in District 1.
"But you can't let that influence you. It's tough. You've gotta stay with your strategy. You roll the dice and let the chips fall where they may."
But Michael Deets, GOP challenger for council in District 3, says voter turnout is the Republicans' top priority. "Traditionally, Republicans turn out in slightly lower numbers than Democrats," Deets said. "We could have won some races that we lost in 1986 had the turnout been just a little bit higher."
Deets said he is not doing anything "independent of the party to beef up" his chances in a low-vote election. He said the "compact, community-oriented nature" of his district makes it important for him to make "personal contact." His polls have helped him determine where that personal contact will help most, Deets said.
Incumbent Democrat Paul Farragut says he, too, is making "personal contact" his major push in the remaining four weeks of the campaign. He said he plans to be at shopping centers on weekends, knock on as many doors as possible and send out mailings of special interest to selected constituencies.
Nearly all candidates say they are worried that no matter what they do, people will still not come to the polls in November. And if the candidates' forum last week in Savage was a realistic kind of indication of voter interest, the candidates are right. Voters in Savage had a chance to look at an incumbent congressman and candidates for five major races -- county executive, District 13 state Senate, District 13B House of Delegates, District 1 council and District 5 council -- but no one showed up other than the 62 persons making up the entourages of the 12 debating candidates.
The lack of enthusiasm from the public at large has shaken incumbents and challengers alike. Small turnouts, they say, can skew the numbers and create surprises. The power of special interest groups becomes magnified.
In Howard County, the special interest groups appear to be made up of residents against the State Highway Administration. Three times in the last two months, politicians have rushed to claim credit for altering SHA intentions. Elkridge residents will now get the sound barrier they wanted, people who live in north Laurel will not have a truck stop built nearby, and residents in the Glenelg area will not have to worry about a SHA study recommending a new road in their district.
The SHA study of a possible connector road linking routes 97 and 32 near Glenelg was spiked Oct. 1 by Gov. William Donald Schaefer. In making his announcement, Schaefer said it was because of County Executive M. Elizabeth Bobo's request that he was "stopping the study immediately."
In publicizing Schaefer's decision, Bobo's office also aired her letter calling on the governor to end the study. In that letter, Bobo said that she and state Sen. Edward Kasemeyer, D-14, were joined in the request to end the study by House of Delegates candidates Lloyd Knowles and Jim Kraft in 14B and County Council candidate Susan Scheidt in District 5.
That crediting of only Democrats infuriated Republican Charles Feaga, the District 5 council incumbent.