What a difference a week makes

September 20, 1994

A week can be a lifetime in politics. So it is that one week after Maryland's primary, Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker has gone from being a virtual shoo-in for a second term to another incumbent in danger of falling victim to a surge of voter anger. The surprise nomination of Susan B. Gray to head the Democratic ticket against Mr. Ecker drastically alters the dynamics of this race.

In short, Ms. Gray's well-defined stance as a no-growth candidate bent on bringing development to its knees in Howard County carries appeal across party and geographic lines, from Republican farmers and the owners of mini-mansions in the county's rural western end to Democratic urban dwellers who are feeling increasingly squeezed by the growth the county has experienced.

Mr. Ecker, a longtime school financial officer turned politician, has always banked on his own crossover appeal, particularly among Democrats who have come to find his moderate Republicanism acceptable. In a time of voter disgust, Ms. Gray changes that; Mr. Ecker has to worry about some Republican voters defecting to her plus some erosion of his Democratic support. We can't take seriously the incumbent's insistence that Ms. Gray's recent win over Democratic Party insider Sue Ellen Hantman will have no bearing on his strategy for re-election.

Mr. Ecker must not only convince voters that the county would be better off under his continued stewardship, but also that an administration headed by Ms. Gray would be a destructive force. Mr. Ecker, in fact, has placed reasonable controls on growth, in the form of comprehensive rezoning, adequate public facilities legislation and agricultural preservation aid. But he could be defeated if Ms. Gray succeeds in painting him as too cozy with the development community.

If Ms. Gray is to be victorious, she must move beyond a myopic focus on growth to elaborate on other pressing issues facing the county. We have yet to hear details of her positions on education, transportation, affordable housing, balancing the budget or economic development, assuming the latter is something that concerns her.

Ms. Gray's portrayal of a county so robust that it needs severe clamps placed on its own progress stands in contrast to a community whose government was one of the metro area's first to lay off workers and raise taxes during the recession, and whose modest commercial tax base is a matter of concern for municipal bond raters.

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