Democrats uncertain about standard-bearer PRIMARY 1994

September 15, 1994|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

Democrats were talking yesterday about how their candidate, Susan B. Gray, can win her race against incumbent County Executive Charles I. Ecker in November.

Whether they want her to is another matter.

Until Tuesday night, party faithful knew her only as a slow-growth advocate who pricked the Ecker administration with lawsuits and a successful voter petition that if approved in November would change the way the county does comprehensive rezoning.

When Ms. Gray entered the race five minutes before the filing deadline July 5, party members thought her candidacy would create a slight detour for Democrat Central Committee member Sue-Ellen Hantman, the choice of party regulars to oppose Mr. Ecker this fall.

Instead, it was Ms. Hantman, a 21-year resident of Columbia, whowas given the detour. Ms. Gray won 51 of 82 precincts, many by huge margins. Ms. Gray, who is a Highland resident, fared well not only outside of Columbia, but also took several precincts in the new town.

Although this is her first try for public office, her victory has is creating problems for some Democratic County Council candidates who don't know whether to get behind her or not.

"I have to do some thinking," said County Council Chariman C. Vernon Gray. "I was a little annoyed that she is in alliance with [Republican] Gary Prestianni who could have been my opponent" in the November election.

Mr. Prestianni, who lost to Evelyn L. Tanner in the GOP primary in the council chairman's district by only 76 votes, is a strong supporter of Ms. Gray and often campaigned with her before the primary.

Two Democratic council contenders say they plan to meet with Ms. Gray to find out where she stands on issues other than growth before saying whether they will support her.

"After actively working in Howard County in the Democratic Party for10 years, I have some misgivings as to whether Susan Gray has the same philosophy," said George L. Layman, Democratic challenger for the Elkridge-Ellicott City seat held by Darrel Drown.

As chairman of the Board of Appeals, Mr. Layman has tangled with Ms. Gray several times over zoning issues. "Until I speak with her about her philosophy, I am not willing to acknowledge her as head of the [local] Democratic Party" in November, he said.

Democrat Mary C. Lorsung said she, too, wants to sit down with Ms. Gray. "I don't know where she is," Ms. Lorsung said. "She has no track record on affordable housing, public transportation, human services and community education -- the things important to me. I will be asking Susan to sit down and share her ideas on the Democratic ideals and issues I have worked on the last 20 years."

Regardless, Ms. Lorsung said, Ms. Gray's candidacy will have little "significant direct impact" on her race with Republican Riaz H. Rana other than the fact that she expects Ms. Gray to give Mr. Ecker fits during the campaign. "I want to hold the District 4 seat for the Democratic Party," Ms. Lorsung said. "Any spirited race out there that motivates voters to turn out is going to be helpful to my campaign."

Democrat Charles A. Acquard, who is running against Republican Dennis Schrader, also thinks he could benefit from the interest created by Ms. Gray's campaign, though he is mute on the issue of his support for her.

"She's going to run an aggressive campaign that is going to turn out a lot of Democrats, which is good for me -- that's the bottom line," he said. "I don't think Susan Gray knows how to campaign at half-speed."

Ms. Gray said she is not sure how her candidacy will affect Democratic contenders. "I won't know until we all sit down and talk and sound out our differences," she said. "My campaign is going to be run as an issue campaign. My purpose is to effect change in county government, and to do that, I'm going to need the help of both Democrats and Republicans. I'm committed to Democratic ideals and I hope we can all join forces, but the issues are foremost in my campaign."

John W. Taylor, an ex-Republican closely allied with Ms. Gray, is one Democrat who is ecstatic about her candidacy. "I think she can and she will win" against Mr. Ecker in November, Mr. Taylor said. "I am trying to think of ways to help her win."

Mr. Taylor, who ran as a Republican for the western Howard County council seat four years ago against two-term incumbent Charles C. Feaga and lost, said he does not know how Ms. Gray's win will affect his race with Mr. Feaga this time.

"I think [her primary victory] shows that people have found Feaga and Ecker wanting and are fed up with them," he said. "I am very encouraged."

Republicans meanwhile, are jumpy. Only one incumbent executive has won re-election in 20 years.

Mr. Ecker himself emerged as a political unknown four years ago to beat Democrat Elizabeth Bobo, a popular and well-financed incumbent.

This year, it is Mr. Ecker, who is the well known and well financed incumbent. He knows that with Democrats holding a voter registration edge county-wide of 1.7 to 1, he is going to need help from Democrats if he is going to win in November.

His strategy four years ago was to win outside Columbia and post respectable numbers of about 40 percent in Columbia where Democrats have an almost 2 to 1 superiority in voter

registrations.

That, however, was the strategy Ms. Gray used Tuesday in coasting to a 1,047-vote win over Ms. Hantman.

Mr. Prestianni is expected to work hard to recruit Republican voters for her in November.

Even without that support, Mr. Ecker could be in trouble if Democratic regulars get behind Ms. Gray's candidacy.

Democratic Central Committee Chairwoman Carole Fisher thinks they will.

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