'Unknown' Ecker Beat Odds, Bobo In Stunning Fashion

November 11, 1990|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff writer

A year ago, Charles I. Ecker was a neophyte Republican trying to decide whether to accept his new party's invitation to run against a seemingly invincible incumbent.

Today, Ecker, 61, is county executive-elect, having won on election night by a 244-vote margin, 25,637 to 25,393. Thursday, he widened that margin to 450 votes after absentee ballots were counted. He won 873 of the absentees to incumbent M. Elizabeth Bobo's 667.

Ironically, a strategy first thought up by Democrat James B. Kraft, a loser in the 14-B delegate race, may have backfired.

After the primary, Kraft asked the election board for applications for absentee ballots that he might pass out to potential voters. When Republicans heard of it, they asked for ballot applications also.

Although no one knows how many applications were passed out rather than applied for through the elections board, most requests came from Republican council districts -- 538 in the second, 401 in the fifth. Requests in the Democratic first and third districts were only 257 and 254, respectively.

Requests in the fourth district, in which Kraft was running, totaled 377.

On election night, Ecker won by 2,532 votes in the Republican second district (Ellicott City) and by 2,224 votes in the GOP-dominated fifth district (western Howard County).

Bobo on the other hand, won by 1,957 votes in the Democratic third district (east Columbia) and by 2,376 votes in the fourth district (west Columbia).

The candidates ran almost even in the Democratic first district with Bobo winning by 179 votes.

If Bobo had won the same number of votes as did Democratic council incumbent C. Vernon Gray, who was running unopposed in the third district, she would have won the election. Gray bested Bobo by 1,042 votes in the third district. She lost overall by only 450.

Gray, who sometimes sparred with the administration, said he worked hard for Bobo in the third district, but was told by poll watchers that some people voted only for him. Gray said he also received votes from a coalition that was upset with the police department's handling of a suicide investigation and blamed the administration for it.

Ecker's victory is impressive regardless. Despite his popularity among people who worked with him when was deputy superintendent of schools, Ecker was initially an unknown to two-thirds of the electorate.

Yet local Republican Central Committee chairman Carol Arscott was convinced Ecker's down-home charm and easygoing manner would win voters if only they could meet him.

Arscott and other influential Republicans wooed Ecker from the moment he stepped down as deputy superintendent in June 1989. In October, he switched parties after 39 years as a Democrat; in December, he agreed to become the GOP's county executive candidate.

Democrats took little notice. Incumbent Bobo was on a fast track.

Four years earlier, she had swept through the primary without losing a precinct and defeated businessman Gil South, her Republican challenger in the general election, by a 2-1 margin.

Democrats -- and perhaps Republicans as well -- had taken it for granted that Bobo's four years in office were the first part of a two-term run as the state's first woman county executive.

She was the darling of editorial writers, was on the right side of the issues and had a cordial relationship with the governor that was the envy of many a politician. If she wanted something from the state for the county, Gov. William Donald Schaefer seemed to do his best to provide it.

Among Democrats, Ecker seemed a minor inconvenience. The question was not how would Bobo do in this election, but where would she be in the next one. Many thought it likely that she'd be running as her party's nominee for lieutenant governor.

Even on election day, when she and Schaefer were politicking together at Centennial High School, people were telling Bobo she was "a shoo-in."

Bobo herself said last week that she took Ecker "very seriously" and "did everything possible" to win re-election. Her defeat, she said, "was more than a little surprise."

If she had simply won as many votes -- 26,664 -- this time as she had four years ago, she would have been re-elected by 821 votes. Instead, she lost by 450. "The people happy with county government did not come out to vote," she said.

Ecker sees things differently.

"There was a feeling among the people that government did not listen," he said. "And a concern about tax increases -- how we are going to pay for the growth that has already occurred in the county."

The candidates' styles couldn't have been more different.

Bobo raised $150,000, spent $103,000. Ecker raised less than half as much -- $66,000, including a $20,000 loan from himself -- and spent half as much -- $56,000.

Ecker hired pollsters and ran a sophisticated media campaign based on newspaper ads and cable television commercials. Bobo relied mostly on campaign literature and direct mailings.

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