For county executive candidates Susan Gray and Sue-Ellen Hantman, Tuesday's Democratic primary looms as a minor, but necessary interruption.
Republican incumbent Charles I. Ecker is their real prey and both expect to be stalking him as their party's standard bearer Wednesday morning. They mention each other only in passing.
Ms. Hantman, who is the choice of party regulars and a former chairwoman of the local Democratic Central Committee, worries that "nothing is happening" within the Ecker administration.
Four years ago, Mr. Ecker and his supporters castigated incumbent M. Elizabeth Bobo for not moving quickly enough on matters such as recycling -- but have not done any better, Ms. Hantman said.
"The current administration seems satisfied" with things as they are, she said.
"We still lack a comprehensive transportation plan -- he eliminated the transportation coordinator position -- and we still lack a comprehensive waste-disposal plan."
Ms. Hantman also faults Mr. Ecker for "not exerting his influence" to encourage the school system to deal with high school students "who are not ready, not capable or who don't want to go to college."
As a former deputy superintendent of schools, Mr. Ecker had the opportunity to work with the school system to improve it, Ms. Hantman said.
"He came in, instead, at loggerheads -- there has been no communication whatsoever, no discussions, no real contact."
Ms. Hantman said she thinks the school system does a good job of preparing students for college, but that secondary education for students who don't plan to attend college could be improved.
Mr. Ecker "had the opportunity to bring in the business community and the community college people to develop a program to help kids not going to college become skilled employees," Ms. Hantman said.
"We could have developed programs that would have given business a qualified, ready-made employee pool and would have given kids skills for career jobs that promised the possibility of advancement, not a dead end.
"It could have been a wonderful economic development pool."
If she is elected, Ms. Hantman said, she hopes to use her influence to help the school system move in that direction and to get the county to implement comprehensive solid-waste and transportation plans.
"We need to change the tenor of government," Ms. Hantman said. "We need more diverse, open-minded people [in the upper echelons], and we need county employees at all levels to take part in making government more efficient and representative. We need a dialogue between county government and every interest group in the county -- truly seeking out people's input rather than merely inviting them to participate," she said.
Reminded that Mr. Ecker said nearly identical things four years ago about the need to make local government more responsive to residents, Ms. Hantman replied that the goal was and is a good one but that it has not been achieved.
"It's like welfare," she said. "The goal of welfare was taking care of kids -- it's called Aid to Families with Dependent Children -- but we did it wrong. Taking care of kids is still a good goal, but we have to be willing to change the way we go about it."
Ms. Gray, a Highland activist who sued the county in an unsuccessful attempt to undo the most recent comprehensive rezoning and the 1990 General Plan, also faulted the Ecker administration for what she said is its failure to involve residents in decision-making.
Despite having one of the most skilled, talented and affluent populations in the nation, the county does not have the depth of civic involvement in decision-making that nearby counties have, Ms. Gray said.
Her two main goals, Ms. Gray said, are "to provide county employees the resources to function as well as they can" and to redirect the county's planning efforts.
"I will not stand for not putting people in this county first, and I will not tolerate a lack of information -- citizens asking simple questions and getting no answers," she said. "That has to change."
The other thing that has to change, she said, is the way that the county does long-range planning. She said the county cannot afford the services needed for the growth projected under the current General Plan, and she wants to change it.
"My vision is that 20 years into the future we will have a vibrant Columbia, a Route 100 with low-density residential neighborhoods, and extensive open space and agricultural lands a county that still retains Columbia as its urban center surrounded by a suburban-rural ring," she said. "I want to shift the focus from a development-driven to a more business-based economy."
Some high-level county employees who fear her candidacy "should be worried," Ms. Gray said.
"Ninety-nine and nine-tenths of county workers are very wonderful. My goals is to get rid of those folks who are the bad eggs and replace them with people who make their focus serving the people of this community."
Ms. Hantman said the major difference between her and Ms. Gray is that "to a great extent her method is confrontational and my method is consensus building. . . . We are a community and we have an interest in what happens to everyone within the county, not just select parts of the county. We have to look out for each other. I don't think she would address the problems I want addressed, let alone the way I would like to see them addressed."
Ms. Gray is looking beyond the primary to the November election, which she thinks she is going to win.
"The traditional processes are not working and, no matter how many buttons you press, significant change [cannot] occur unless you work within the political system," she said.
"I worked seven years with communities that were involved in a process they didn't perceive as fair. My whole purpose [in running for executive] is to bring about some fairness in the process."