Howard County -- one of the fastest growing, must affluent and best-educated communities in the nation -- was not supposed to have such a fierce race for county executive this year.
The incumbent Republican, Charles I. Ecker, had grown so powerful since his narrow upset win in 1990 that few were willing to run against him. Many politicians who coveted the job looked elsewhere this year.
So great was his popularity that it appeared Mr. Ecker would win re-election by default until late June, just two weeks before the deadline for entering the race. But Democrats persuaded longtime party loyalist and civic activist Sue-Ellen Hantman to jump in. The former Planning Board chairwoman was to bravely carry the party banner.
She never got the chance. Susan Gray -- a west county Democrat committed to reversing most of the zoning decisions in Howard of the last five years -- entered the fray two minutes before the filing deadline. In the primary 10 weeks later, Ms. Gray shocked Democrats and Republicans alike by handily beating Ms. Hantman.
And now, while Mr. Ecker may be the prohibitive favorite to win the general election, it is Ms. Gray who has set the campaign's agenda. Theirs is a fight about some of the most valuable land in the Baltimore-Washington corridor -- how it's to be used and who will have the power to decide that.
It's a fight in which fortunes are at stake, as well as the quality of life in Howard's well-off enclaves. And it's a fight in which the choices are clear-cut.
"We're almost as different as night and day," Mr. Ecker says. "I feel sorry for the people out there. I say one thing. She says another. Everybody can't check the facts."
Ms. Gray wants to preserve the rural character of the county. She wants to overturn a general zoning plan put into effect in 1990 and reverse virtually all recent zoning decisions.
She wants to give the county executive veto power over zoning decisions and voters the right to overturn those decisions at the polls.
By contrast, Mr. Ecker's watchwords are "managed, controlled, and directed growth" -- a measured pace that he says is essential to the county's economic health. And he's against giving the county executive or voters a veto over zoning matters, preferring instead the current procedure that allows for court appeals.
A lifelong Democrat until recruited by the Republicans for the 1990 election, Mr. Ecker espouses what longtime Howard residents call the Columbia concept: a 1960s-style populism that values people of all races, religions and income levels living and working together.
Until now, most county executive candidates, including Mr. Ecker, accepted that ideal.
But soaring housing costs in the 1980s and early 1990s have put a strain on the Columbia ideal.
With homes on large rural lots selling for $400,000 or more, a variety of people no longer lived side by side.
Those able to afford such expensive homes believed their large investments entitled them to protection from encroaching apartments, town homes and shopping centers.
By 1989, virtually every proposal to add housing or increase business in the county met opposition from entrenched residents. And Ms. Gray, an attorney who lives in a modest farmhouse on the edge of an affluent rural neighborhood in Highland, had emerged as one of the main leaders of the slow-growth movement.
Back then, Ms. Gray became convinced that then-Executive M. Elizabeth Bobo and county planning officials were using subterfuge -- inflated growth projections -- to bring more development to the county's rural areas. She gained a following by appealing to residents who felt they had been treated shabbily in zoning hearings.
Residents often were not allowed to speak at hearings until after 11 p.m. -- and then for only three minutes.
Inside the hearings, Ms. Gray challenged the developers. But her most important moves were outside the hearing rooms where she simply listened to residents' laments. "You poor babes" was her frequent refrain.
These days, Ms. Gray attacks Mr. Ecker as a captive of developers who want to impose large-scale, Columbia-style developments on rural residents. Unchecked, this would cost the county billions of dollars in needed school, road and public works projects, she says.
"I intend to break the back of the little cadre of lawyers and developers who hold the county hostage by threat of suit" if zoning decisions don't go their way, she says.
"The only reason I'm running is that I'm fed up with their process and am committed to making this a process that puts every normal, everyday resident first. I want a process that doesn't play games."
The appeal of this message from Ms. Gray has surprised many, but not Mr. Ecker.
Four years ago, he played the outsider's role, upsetting a popular and well-financed incumbent. This year, he is the popular, well-financed incumbent, and Ms. Gray is the outsider.
For his part, Mr. Ecker casts Ms. Gray as a one-issue candidate whose election would cause business interests to flee the county. A high quality of life depends on having a healthy local economy, he says. The national recession may be ending, he says, but Maryland and Howard County are still hurting.
And, without a measured infusion of new residents and new businesses, Mr. Ecker believes, Howard County would become snobbish, ingrown and ultimately deteriorate.
"I don't want an elitist county," he says. "I'm concerned about all our residents -- the young, the poor, the two-parent families. Our diversity is our strength."