Voters seeking to make a choice Nov. 6 between challenger Charles I. Ecker and incumbent County Executive M. Elizabeth Bobo will discover they appear to differ not so much on the issues as on how to confront them.
And even then, the differences appear to be relatively small.
Republican Ecker, for example, says the county has grown too fast and needs an adequate public facilities ordinance. Although Democrat Bobo has already submitted an adequate public facilities ordinance to the County Council, Ecker says she didn't do it soon enough.
Ecker, 61, says the county must increase its recycling efforts. Although Bobo is doing that, Ecker says he's more of a purist because Bobo's staff had argued against a mandatory recycling bill two years ago in Annapolis.
A retired county deputy school superintendent, Ecker says he wants to "maintain and continue to see ways to improve the quality of education in Howard County."
Bobo, 46, says not only is she doing that already, but her relations with the Board of Education are better than any executive before her. She says the same thing about her relations with the County Council and the county's Annapolis delegation.
Ecker accuses Bobo of "runaway spending," and says he would reduce the size of county government, especially the staffs of the county executive and county administrator.
Bobo says Ecker's suggestions would shave only one-thirtieth of one percent from the budget. She says increases in police, teachers, firefighters, housing inspectors, and citizen services employees that occurred during her first term were necessary to meet the needs of a growing county.
Ecker says Bobo's policies have "divided the county" and that he would "build community consensus" by calling for a "summit meeting of all community and business groups" to deal with community issues.
"My management style is to trust people, to allow them to function, take risks, and make mistakes," Ecker said.
Bobo says that if she had waited for a consensus, nothing would have been done.
"This job is not easy," she said. "What the county needs is someone willing to set the course and lead the county in that direction."
She said she had done exactly that by identifying problems, calling people in to tell them how she plans to solve them, and inviting the public to react to her proposals.
Ecker charges that Bobo has run an "arrogant" administration in which citizens have had to file freedom of information requests or sue the county to get routine information. He says he would establish "an open-door policy" and "open all records regarding official county business."
Bobo says she runs a "very open" administration and has involved more citizens in county government than any executive in the history of Howard County. Ecker knows this, she says, he himself had been appointed by her to two citizen committees -- one on debt affordability and another on the General Plan.
This kind of thrust and parry has been the essence of the campaign.
Ecker makes a charge; Bobo refutes it and turns it to her advantage.
Take Monday night's debate sponsored by the Howard County Economic Forum and the Coalition of Community Associations, for example.
When told that commercial lenders are reluctant to finance building projects in the county because of the "unpredictability" of her administration's policies, Bobo said, "Don't visit on me the careless review of loans applications that have led to the failure of the building industry."
When Ecker accused her of "squashing" business people and creating so much anti-business feeling here that businesses like General Electric are fleeing the county, Bobo replied that "the fact that GE located in another state has nothing to do with the economic climate in Howard County."
Look instead at the "record of businesses that have come here and thrived and expanded," Bobo said. "Look at the new businesses that have come here. Howard County is extremely competitive and the record shows that."
Although "everyone is being hurt" by the nationwide decline in the economy, Bobo said, "the shortfall Howard County has been experiencing has been less than elsewhere.
"Those who say the county is bad for business are making a self-fulfilling prophecy," she said.
Bobo said the fact that the county was able to get a 6.9 percent interest rate on a $53 million bond sale is "virtually unheard of in the region" and demonstrates Wall Street's confidence in the county.
When criticized for abandoning, or at the very least giving a low priority to the office of economic development which for several months has been without a director, Bobo replied that her first appointee "was so well thought of that he was taken away by the governor."
More than 150 persons have applied to fill the vacancy, Bobo said, adding that she would rather "wait two months to get the right person -- someone who understands that business is not in conflict with the rest of the county" -- than move ahead impulsively.