Roger B. Hayden's election as the first Republican county executive in Baltimore County in 24 years is a watershed event. Not only because record numbers of Republicans were swept into office with him, but because so many Democrats -- from ordinary voters to elected officials -- backed his campaign openly or clandestinely. Party labels have become increasingly meaningless. Mr. Hayden himself is proof of that -- he was a registered Democrat until June.
His broad base of support and wide victory margin -- 61.7 percent against Democrat Dennis F. Rasmussen's 38.2 percent -- translate into an impressive leadership mandate. Thus, Mr. Hayden is in an enviable position to effect the fundamental changes voters apparently want. All he needs is determination and skill.
He is certain to encounter initial difficulties. Republicans have been absent from power in Towson for so long that they lack a pool of good people with government experience. His selection is further limited by the county GOP's lunatic fringe, leaping to claim credit for his success. This can be a mine field for Mr. Hayden, who is a newcomer to GOP intrigues.
Yet Mr. Hayden is lucky. Question T, which would have capped annual revenue increases from property taxes at 2 percent, was defeated at the polls. Among winning charter amendments on the ballot were two which greatly enhance a county executive's ability to change government structure and practices. They will give the new executive flexibility to improve efficiency.
Mr. Hayden may be less fortunate with the new county council. Five of the seven members are brand new -- and three are Republicans. Some are shallow grandstanders. They may not want to follow the Hayden administration's wishes.
One of the new county executive's problem areas will be Annapolis. Mr. Rasmussen never had a good working relationship with county legislators, who undercut his initiatives and exhibited an abysmal ignorance of the administration's priorities. Mr. Hayden could find the going difficult, too, because the county delegation remains a disappointing bunch, despite some welcome changes. Yet it is supremely important for Mr. Hayden and state lawmakers to get along. If they do not, Baltimore County stands to be the big loser in the keen competition for increasingly sparse state aid.
How the new county executive spends his time before the Dec. 3 inauguration is the first test of his abilities. Mr. Rasmussen has pledged to help in an orderly transfer of power. A smooth transition is particularly important now that the worsening economy is beginning to affect local government.