Election surprises 'green' activists Endorsements didn't help area candidates

November 09, 1990|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Evening Sun Staff Larry Carson, Joan Jacobson, Bruce Reid, Marina Sarris and Norris West contributed to this story.

Environmental concerns apparently took a back seat to anti-incumbent fever in key Baltimore area local elections this week, as voters ignored "green" endorsements of Democratic county executive candidates to choose Republicans promising leaner government.

Environmental activists are still shaking their heads over the losses of Baltimore County Executive Dennis Rasmussen, Howard County Executive Elizabeth Bobo and Anne Arundel County executive hopeful Theodore Sophocleus -- all of whom had promised to protect waterways and control development.

"What happened to Earth Day? We're asking ourselves that," said a disappointed Nita Settina, a Sierra Club activist who had campaigned for Sophocleus.

"People talk about the environment being important, but their votes certainly didn't reflect it," lamented Nancy Davis, a Sierra activist who saw Bobo and another slow-growth incumbent, Councilwoman Angela Beltram, lose in Howard.

But activists took heart from races elsewhere in Maryland, where voters replaced other incumbents with challengers vowing to curb runaway development and to step back from controversial landfill and incinerator projects.

In Worcester County, the commissioners' president lost his bid for re-election to a Bishopville woman who campaigned to protect Maryland's coastal bays from growth spurred by retirees and people building second homes near Ocean City.

In Frederick County, four of five new commissioners elected were backed by a coalition of environmental and civic groups upset by surging development and by the incumbents' decision to condemn a family farm for a new landfill, according to Sierra activist Pete Givan.

Montgomery County voters tapped a slow-growth county executive who had toppled the incumbent in the September primary. The victor, Neal Potter, also pledged to take another look at bitterly disputed incinerator and landfill projects planned for the rural northwestern corner of the county.

And in Allegany County, all three incumbent commissioners have been swept from office in what environmentalists say was a voter uprising over a plan to let an out-of-state company put a new county landfill in an abandoned coal mine near some homes.

"I think it sends a strong message that people in this state feel something must be done about growth," said Joan Willey, state conservation chair of the Sierra Club and president of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters.

In legislative and congressional races, environmental activists had a better batting average than usual, backing 86 percent of the winners. One of those was Gov. William Donald Schaefer, to whom environmentalists are looking for support for statewide growth management legislation.

Republican Wayne Gilchrest's upset of Rep. Roy Dyson, D-1st, was particularly sweet for environmentalists because Dyson had criticized federal wetlands protections. Farmers and property owners on the Eastern Shore and in Southern Maryland have complained about the rules, but Gilchrest toed a more moderate line on the issue and won.

Still, Willey and other activists acknowledge they were stunned and remain stumped by the outcomes of the executive races in the Baltimore area, where public opinion polls had shown strong sentiment for curbing growth and development.

Rasmussen, for instance, was endorsed by a coalition of environmental and civic leaders, who cited his initiatives to protect streams, curb sprawling development and preserve forestland.

Bobo, likewise, was credited with pushing through tough new environmental rules governing development and with trying to preserve the county's remaining farmland. And in Anne Arundel, environmentalists liked Sophocleus's plan for managing growth better than the record of Republican Robert Neall, who as a state legislator had voted against bay-shore development limits and the phosphate detergent ban.

Yet Republican candidates also ran as environmental guardians and controlled-growth advocates, which may have neutralized "green" issues in many voters' minds.

Republican Robert Ecker, for instance, was backed by Howard's home builders but accused Bobo of managing growth poorly.

Some backers of Baltimore County Republican Roger Hayden also complained that Rasmussen was still giving developers a free hand.

"We had a unique situation where they tried to [out] anti-growth each other," said Davis.

But as the economy worsened and federal budget problems dominated the headlines, tax and spending issues pushed environmental questions into the background for many voters.

"People were more concerned about their pocketbooks and so forth than they were about clean air and clean water," said Settina.

And with the governor's Chesapeake Bay growth commission considering calling for up to $100 million in new state spending to help redirect growth in Maryland, the voters' anti-spending mood clearly sends mixed signals about how far the public will go on proposals to manage development.

Environmental issues did play a role in some Baltimore area races. Defeats of two incumbent Harford County Council members and one state delegate were blamed partly on their involvement with a controversial landfill near Havre de Grace and with the now-dead Windsor Mall shopping center near Bel Air.

Willey suggested that environmentalists will be paying more attention to local races in the future. She noted that she and other activists had helped form local political action committees in Frederick, Montgomery and Worcester, where "green" candidates won.

"This, for us -- for environmentalists -- was a tremendous victory, and shows where we should go in the future in the counties," Willey said.

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