Howard County voters appear as disinterested in the Nov. 6 general election race for county executive as they were in the September primary, when only 24 percent of the county's registered voters cast ballots, a turnout even more dismal than the low statewide figures.
According to election officials, there are 92,801 registered voters in Howard and about 30 percent of the state's 2,106,495 registered voters turned out for the primary.
"I really don't have any problem with anything going on in the county," voter Bill Rapson, 54, of Ellicott City, said at the Columbia Mall. "We live here and I think it's going good. I think we're apathetic anyway, especially in a place like this where people are living pretty good."
Susan Aldous, 40, of Ellicott City, may be the typical Howard resident. She has lived in the suburban county for only a year and is planning a crash course on the county's candidates and the issues before Election Day.
"I've saved all my papers of all the candidates and I will be studying all facets of them -- their stand on moral, fiscal and law-enforcement issues," Aldous said.
In interviews at Columbia Mall, where many people from the county's main population centers of Columbia and Ellicott City shop, it was difficult to find anyone with strong views on either incumbent Democrat County Executive Elizabeth Bobo or her Republican challenger Charles I. Ecker.
There was more concern about the Middle East and the federal budget talks.
Support for Bobo appeared soft, and hardly anyone knew much about Ecker, the retired deputy superintendent of public schools making his first bid for elected office.
But in Lisbon, a tiny, scenic farm town in western Howard, the mention of Bobo's name elicits furrowed eyebrows and terse comments.
"I don't think she has the makings of a county executive," snapped Paul Embrey, a proud Republican who laments the changing landscape that has resulted in more residential growth and fewer farmers. He said Bobo is unable to deal with longtime residents in that area.
"She only looks at the eastern and southeastern part of the county," Embrey said yesterday at Lisbon Automotive, a service station/convenience store on Md. 144. "She doesn't even know about the western end of the county."
Sheila Schubert, of nearby Woodbine, agreed. She said county officials have failed to listen to west-end residents on land use and that she was upset by Bobo's growth plan that would seek to build homes in clusters rather than in three-acre lots.
"People in the east don't have land, so they don't really care about this end of the county," Schubert said while standing at the counter of Lee's Market, which would be the quintessential old-fashioned grocery store if not for its stock of rental videos.
Bobo's advantage may be that her support, even if soft, is solid in the highly populated suburban areas. Despite some recent budget problems, which have resulted in county department heads being ordered to cut costs, she has presided over a period of prosperity.
Howard County is one of the 10 wealthiest counties in the United States and the prices of its single-family homes are the highest in Maryland, surpassing even expensive Montgomery County.
Without much crime, housing decay or homelessness, the county of about 176,000 has been able to channel more resources toward an already excellent school system and trash recycling.
County department heads have received almost every dollar they requested from the Bobo administration. Ecker is trying to work that to his advantage, bashing her for uncontrolled spending that has led to a $286.4 million budget that is 88 percent higher than the one she inherited.
He said the budget problems, which officials say is caused by a projected $5 million shortfall in revenues due to lagging transfer and recordation taxes, is proof that Bobo has gone overboard in spending.
"It doesn't surprise me that we're going to have a deficit," Ecker said. "With Bobo's 'spend-it-now' approach, we were bound to get into trouble."
He says it's time to reduce government spending. He says he would correct the problem by slashing the number of employees in the county executive's and county administrator's office and force other staff reductions through attrition.
However, as he attacked Bobo for spending too much, Ecker has found himself on the defensive for having asked her for substantial increases in the public schools' budget while he was the system's deputy superintendent.
The county's contribution to the school system has almost doubled since the year before Bobo became county executive, from $78.5 million in fiscal year 1987 to $140.5 million in the current cycle, fiscal 1991.
In a recent public forum, he scored Bobo on the spending issue, but she responded that her administration generously has granted his funding requests. In the opening statements of a later debate, Ecker defended his role in seeking county money for schools.
"I'm proud of the part I played in making the public school system in Howard County one of the best," he said.
Bobo responded later: "It was my opponent who raised the issue that I had spent too much money. Is he backing off that statement?"
The issues of government spending and the economy are
expected to enter the campaign soon, but voters continue to focus on growth and the control of it. And they disagree on whether Bobo has done enough.