GOP hopefuls offer diversity 5 vie in the 4th District Council race CAMPAIGN 1994

August 28, 1994|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

The GOP County Council primary in west Columbia, the most lopsidedly Democratic of the five County Council districts, is a great sideshow.

Democratic voter superiority is so overwhelming there -- 1.83 to 1 -- that it looked as if the Democratic primary winner would win by default the 4th District seat being vacated by Democrat Paul R. Farragut.

But to the surprise of both Democrats and Republicans, the GOP fielded three very diverse candidates, each of whom is looking forward to winning the Sept. 13 primary. Based on the turnout in the 1990 primary, they will need only 720 votes to do it.

The three are coming up with some novel ideas. Federal retiree Robert E. O'Brien hopes to show that a person can raise and spend less than $300 and still wage a credible campaign. Mary Ann Wilkinson, an assistant professor of nursing at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, wants to make council members accessible by electronic mail.

And retired business executive Riaz H. Rana wants to limit council service to two terms of six years each, with a voter referendum on their performance every two years. A council member who didn't get a 75 percent approval rating would have to fight for re-election, under his plan.

Mr. Rana is a former Democrat new to the GOP. Mr. O'Brien and Ms. Wilkinson are long-time Republicans. Both Mr. O'Brien and Ms. Wilkinson had expected to run unopposed with their party's blessing.

When it appeared that no Republican would contest the seat, Mr. O'Brien, 60, met with County Executive Charles I. Ecker and asked if the executive would mind having Mr. O'Brien on the ticket with him.

"I was the first candidate in either party to file. I filed to provide competition" for the Democrats, he said.

$300 limit

Although two other candidates entered the race, Mr. O'Brien, who signed a waiver saying he would not raise or spend more than $300 on his campaign, has no intention of getting out. "I'm the best qualified person," he says. "My experience in federal service cannot be matched by anyone" else in the race.

During his 31-year government career, Mr. O'Brien served as a policy analyst with the Department of Agriculture, an environmental protection specialist with the Environmental Protection Agency, and a grants management specialist with the National Institutes of Health.

His major goals are to make comprehensive zoning a legislative act subject to voter referendum and to overturn a mixed-use zoning designation for an 820-acre parcel near Route 216 and U.S. 29. "I would do everything I could to rescind, eliminate or modify that decision," Mr. O'Brien says.

No advertising

Mr. O'Brien has limited his campaign activity to attendance at forums and answering questionnaires. Campaigning door to door "pointless," and media advertising is "self-glorifying," he says. "It doesn't make any difference whatsoever to people."

He believes his low-budget campaign can succeed because "people have not made up their minds yet -- they will look at the voters' guide and make their decision the day before the election."

Ms. Wilkinson, who holds a doctorate in education from Virginia Polytechnic Institute, started thinking about doing more politically than attending fund-raisers and helping with other people's campaigns when the state cut public health funding.

"Essential people were cut," she says, "I spearheaded a [successful] letter-writing campaign" to preserve essential services. She also involved several of her students in establishing "a clinical base for populations at risk" within the county -- teen parents, women with breast cancer, and the chronically mentally ill. In addition, Ms. Wilkinson, a psychiatric nurse, does volunteer therapy eight hours a week.

She had seen her role as chairwoman of both the county Commission for Women and the Women's Health Committee as rounding out her public service until Councilman Charles C. Feaga, a 5th District Republican, asked her to run for the council.

"I was shocked when asked," she says, "but I would definitely like to see a female on the council" again. Councilwoman Shane Pendergrass, a 1st District Democrat, the only woman on the five-member council, is running for state office this fall.

Like Mr. O'Brien, Ms. Wilkinson thinks the zoning procedures need to be changed. She wants residents to have more than three minutes to express themselves on controversial matters, such as the Route 216 mixed-use zoning proposal.

Ms. Wilkinson, 44, also sees her campaign as having an important teaching role. "If nothing else, it will feed my students' zeal for years to come," she says. "I am teaching leadership and management and that nurses need to be involved in politics. We give of ourselves and help other people. We have excellent management and organizational skills."

Ms. Wilkinson is out every morning with a sign, waving at motorists. The experience reminds her of her early childhood in New Orleans when she used to sit on the porch in rockers with her grandparents and wave at passing cars, she says.

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