Ecker's Challenge in Howard

November 12, 1990

Howard County Executive Elizabeth Bobo's stunning defeat at the hands of Republican Charles I. Ecker ushers in wholesale political change in Howard, a county that hasn't seen GOP leadership since the 1970s. Mr. Ecker's victory is less a vote for the former deputy school superintendent than a resounding call for change. Ms. Bobo tried to placate often-at-odds community activists and developers by taking the middle ground on growth. In the end, she satisfied no one.

Howard's swelling local GOP hammered away on this theme, laying the "growth mess" at the doorstep of Democratic county government. The message struck a chord; the electorate embraced GOP candidates in record numbers.

Tuesday's election not only breaks the 4-1 Democratic lock on the five-member council, but materially changes the dynamics between Howard's legislative body and executive. The ouster of Angela Beltram in the Second District puts an end to the three-member voting bloc that pushed through so much of Ms. Bobo's agenda.

Mr. Ecker and the new council have to finish crucial growth legislation started by the outgoing administration. This will require alliance-building. While the council appears to have a 3-2 Democratic majority, in practice the new county executive likely will find himself dealing with an evenly split council. Maverick Democratic Councilman Vernon Gray could play the role of tie-breaker.

Howard's influence in Annapolis could decline, now that Republicans hold five of the seven state legislative seats in the delegation. Ms. Bobo's close relationship with Gov. William Donald Schaefer worked to Howard's advantage. Now, with the county's building boom deflated, it is imperative for the delegation to forge cooperative alliances with the governor, regardless of party affiliation.

Maintaining top-flight schools and services won't be easy with declining state and local revenues. Nor will it be easy to balance the need for controlled growth against the development so vital to Howard's economy. Tackling these issues will require skill and courage. Mr. Ecker has had years of administrative expertise in the school system, but this is light prep work for the daunting job of satisfying various and vocal constituencies in Maryland's fastest-growing county.

Mr. Ecker is an affable man, a "nice guy" who has promised many things to many people. Howard is plagued by a growing schism between Columbia and the rest of the county, by a creeping sense of parochialism and the on-going struggle between community interests and developers. The nice guy chosen by voters to lead them through the economic travails of the next four years will have to be a quick learner. There is little time for on-the-job training.

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