COLUMBIA -- Two hours before the shops open in the morning, Columbia Mall is soothingly quiet and dim with dawn's gray light. But even at 8 a.m., the mall pulses with a surprising number of people who are there not to shop but to get in shape or sip some coffee and read the paper. And maybe talk a little politics.
The mall is Columbia's town square, the crossroads of both the city and Howard County. But you'll find little Main Street-style political activity here. There are no political hopefuls shouting from soapboxes or volunteers distributing campaign fliers.
"We don't get into campaigning here," said Bill Nunn, the mall's manager, sitting in his office down the hall from the food court. "To have all those people doing speeches -- it would be really inappropriate here."
The situation seems to be the same in much of the county, where last month only 24 percent of 92,800 eligible voters turned out for a primary election in which many candidates, among them County Executive Elizabeth Bobo, went unopposed.
That was well below the record-low statewide average of 35 percent.
Sue Warren, a Columbia homemaker, often comes to the mall with friends for an early morning constitutional. Ms. Warren will admit that she doesn't pay much attention to local politics.
But she notes that the local politicians haven't mounted much in the way of campaigns, as far as she can see.
"I try to follow politics faithfully, but in the primary people were just twiddling their thumbs," she said.
When asked what was on people's minds in her village of Dorsey Hall, she and her walking mates, Grace and Philip Adinolfi, stopped next to a delicatessen and began an animated discussion on the increasing number of unkempt lawns in the area -- due to absentee landlords, they suspect.
"Columbia is almost completed," said Mr. Adinolfi, a retiree who's lived in the area since 1969. "It's turning into a bedroom community, and the county hasn't been doing anything about notifying people who violate covenants [about lawn neatness.]."
Scratch the surface of concerns like that and you'll find people who moved to Columbia for its "quality of life," but who now must come to grips with increased traffic, crowded schools and crime.
The one buzzword on everyone's lips is "growth."
Brenda Simmons and Mable Bickerstaff like the chance to chat, as much as the physical part of their regular power walks around the mall's upper level -- two times around and and you've done a mile.
Members of a loosely organized group called the "Mall Milers," they had just completed their mile and were preparing to go to work when asked about what they thought were the big issues facing the county.
They laughed at first, as if county politics would be the last thing on their minds.
Clad in an oversized pink shirt and sweat pants, Mrs. Simmons said, "Growth is the biggest issue. I used to live in Montgomery County, and we all know how it's turning out."
Now she lives in the Hawthorne neighborhood in Columbia's Village of Hickory Ridge, and is getting increasingly concerned with heavier traffic and with crime.
The neighbors, she noted, just organized a watch patrol to keep an eye on the streets.
"My husband is a state trooper, and sometimes he doesn't like me coming to the mall in the dark," she said.
Her walking mate, Mabel Bickerstaff, noted that she has a key-chain canister of Mace in her purse, just to be on the safe side.
"You have to take precautions," she said. The reason for the crime? Growth.
She said she keeps the lights on out in the back of her house to discourage prowlers.
"The county is just growing too fast. The traffic just keeps getting worse -- even residential streets in Hawthorne are turning into thoroughfares," she said.
Before moving to Columbia, Ms. Simmons spent some time in the west county community of Clarksville, where incumbent County Councilman Charles C. Feaga, R-5th, is running against Democrat Susan Scheidt.
"Charlie Feaga is fine, but I like Susan's ideas about limiting growth and keeping the rural character of the county," she said.
Sentiments like that seem like warning signs to some political analysts.
"The top five issues are growth, taxes, growth, taxes and growth," said Brad Coker, the president of Mason-Dixon Opinion Research, a Columbia polling firm.
He said his research is "picking up traces of the 'throw the bums out' sentiment, though not so intense as in Montgomery County," where County Executive Sidney Kramer was upset in the Democratic primary.
Charles Ecker, the Republican candidate for Howard County executive, said he sees anti-incumbent sentiment growing in the county.
Despite the low turnout in the primary, almost every race is competitive in the November elections, he said, and seemingly comfortable incumbents like Elizabeth Bobo and Mr. Feaga should not take anything for granted.
L He predicted that voter turnout would be higher in November.