With their party hoping to retake the Baltimore County executive's seat this year, Democratic voters had four candidates to choose from yesterday as they picked a challenger for incumbent Republican Roger B. Hayden, who faced only token primary opposition.
Three leading Democratic contenders retreated to election night headquarters last night to await the returns, while Mr. Hayden went to a joint gathering with gubernatorial candidate Helen Delich Bentley at the Timonium Fairgrounds.
Although he had two primary opponents, Mr. Hayden was not expected to have any trouble winning his party's nomination for a second term. Donald W. Brewer, a former county worker running a low-budget campaign from his Eastpoint home, and George Egbert of Aero Acres, who ran a no-budget campaign, weren't expected to provide much real competition.
The struggle among the top three contenders for the Democratic nomination seemed likely to be much closer. Councilmen C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III and Melvin G. Mintz were considered the leaders with John C. Coolahan, former state senator and retired District Court judge, a dark horse. Kevin Pearl, 28, a follower of Lyndon LaRouche, wasn't given much chance to win.
Depending on the effect of an expected low turnout and the strength of Mr. Coolahan, Halethorpe's favorite son, the Democratic primary could be close.
Mr. Coolahan's campaign was considered a long shot, even by himself. A longtime southwestern county senator, Mr. Coolahan raised only a tiny fraction of the money Mr. Ruppersberger and Mr. Mintz had to spend and didn't get the endorsements he needed from established Eastside politicians.
But he hoped that his endorsement of gubernatorial candidate American Joe Miedusiewski, an East Baltimore conservative, would attract enough Eastside votes to add to his own Catonsville-Arbutus-Halethorpe base to give him a victory.
At Arbutus Elementary School, where the candidate was politicking under a huge tree, Larry and Jean Carter voted for him. "He's local. I worked for him in District Court; he's a pretty fair guy," Mr. Carter said, as his wife nodded assent.
But even if Mr. Coolahan lost, his totals still could help determine whether Mr. Mintz of Pikesville or Mr. Ruppersberger of Cockeysville get the chance to carry the Democratic Party banner in November.
Mr. Mintz, who used his own and relatives' money to boost his campaign fund-raising total by $164,000, placed his hopes on the large base of Democratic voters in his Pikesville-Randallstown council district to give him a natural edge over Mr. Ruppersberger, who has a much larger Republican registration is his north county district.
Mr. Mintz figured that a 6-1 or 7-1 margin in his own area and getting respectable totals elsewhere would mean a win for him. But a similar strategy failed in the 1978 executive race when Pikesville Del. Howard Needle garnered only 8,000 votes outside his own northwestern base.
By 5 p.m., roughly a third of those registered had voted at Pikesville High school, the core of Mr. Mintz's strength. Adrienne Blumberg said she voted for him because she's asked his County Council office for help several times and his aides not only responded, but followed up.
Mr. Ruppersberger bet on his year of preparation and planning, endorsements by county workers unions, a centrist reputation and his fiscal conservatism.
His ability to get along with Republicans and Democrats won him political support among eastern county elected officials and Democratic clubs.
Dorothy Evans, 71, who voted at Catonsville High School, said she favored Mr. Ruppersberger. "I've been in his company for several hours and I liked what I heard," she said.
The candidates struggled in the face of voter apathy for much of the campaign, with little controversy and few emotional issues to draw attention to their campaigns. Numerous candidates forums failed to draw more than a handful of citizens.
One of the most important factors in the election was the lack of an Eastside candidate, leaving huge numbers of votes up for grabs. With a few exceptions, Eastside Democrats have dominated county politics for 30 years. But with the corruption scandals of the 1970s and the long-term loss of thousands of industrial jobs and the votes that went with them, the Eastside's dominance has declined.
The issue that has most caught fire with the Eastside voters -- the federal Moving to Opportunity subsidized housing program -- seemed to have little effect on the executive race. All of the candidates criticized something about the program, which would move 285 poor inner-city families to new homes of their own choosing in more affluent neighborhoods in the metropolitan area.
Mr. Ruppersberger declared himself opposed to the program on Aug. 8, calling it "social engineering.
Mr. Mintz, who represents a liberal constituency, refused to state his position until last week, when he ran ads in two Eastside newspapers saying he was against MTO.