Ecker runs to win, but has no swollen ego at risk

October 30, 1994|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

It is January 1991, and Howard County's new county executive is in Annapolis meeting state legislators. He listens patiently as they talk about their recent victories at the polls. Most shake his hand and move on. One pauses.

"What do you do, Chuck?" the legislator asks.

"I'm the county executive in Howard County."

"Oh," the legislator says, moving on.

Charles Isaac Ecker -- the Carroll County farm boy who earned a doctorate at the University of North Carolina and served Howard County 16 years as an assistant, associate and deputy superintendent of schools -- does not take the snub personally.

That's Mr. Ecker. He has no entourage, no staff of minions attending him. He stands in the background, almost unnoticed. Those adept at spotting the powerful in a crowd tend to decide with a glance that he is not of much importance.

Unlike many politicians, Mr. Ecker does not define himself by what he does. He presents himself simply as "Chuck Ecker." Even within the school system, where referring to those with Ph.D.'s as "Doctor" is de rigueur, everybody calls Dr. Ecker "Chuck."

He listens more than he talks. He seems genuinely interested in others' concerns. The first impression: "Nice guy."

It is an impression that helped him achieve victory over M. Elizabeth Bobo, a seemingly unbeatable incumbent in 1990. It is one that worked against him in the first two years of his administration when he used harsh measures to solve the county's worst fiscal crisis in more than a decade.

And it is one that could make the difference now in his race against Susan B. Gray, the Democratic challenger.

Issues mattered little in 1990 because he and Ms. Bobo held such similar views. Their differences were about style. She screened her calls and was nearly always accompanied by an aide. He promised a more friendly and accessible government.

Republican stalwarts found it a little too open and friendly. His transition team included more Democrats than Republicans, and retained several high-ranking officials -- Democrats -- appointed by the Bobo administration. He dismissed GOP complaints, saying, "Local government is too important to be influenced by partisan politics."

He had no honeymoon. Days after taking office in December 1990, Mr. Ecker had to deal with the county's rapidly worsening financial crisis. He raised the property tax rate 14 cents, laid off 40 people, left 160 positions vacant and froze the salaries of all non-school-system employees. He also tried to nullify a salary increase negotiated by the teachers union. When both teachers and the board of education balked at that, he cut the school budget anyway, saying school employees should suffer the same fate as other county employees.

More than 1,000 angry people showed up at a budget hearing. Employees said he was ruthless; teachers called him a traitor; residents said he was deceitful. No one believed that the county's finances had become so adverse so quickly. Four years later, some detractors still harbor resentments.

If the public castigations hurt, Mr. Ecker never showed it.

When asked how he and his family were holding up, he responded with his typically self-deprecating sense of humor. "We're doing all right," he said. "I'm sleeping in the office, and they're wearing sweat shirts saying,'I voted for Bobo.' "

By July, everyone realized that the county's financial problems were real. Some County Council members and school employees urged Mr. Ecker to increase local income taxes. He refused. Instead, he persuaded employees to go a week without pay during the December holidays.

During his four-year term, Mr. Ecker has become his own lobbyist -- not bringing people to his office, but going to theirs.

No meeting was too humble or too hostile for him to attend. He met almost monthly with council members on their turf to plead his case. He became the first Howard executive ever to testify on his own behalf at a council hearing.

He also began having breakfast once a month with employees chosen by lot. Supervisors complained, but now they eat breakfast with him once a month as well.

The chief executive officers of local companies with 200 or more employees also wanted to get in on the act; they now break bread with him four times a year. He also eats with seniors every month.

All of the meetings have one thing in common: There's no agenda.

"I try to get information from a lot of different sources and determine what the implications may be," Mr. Ecker said. "You can't always have your own way. My way may be the wrong way. A lot of decisions are compromises. I have to decide what I think can be implemented -- even though if I had my druthers, what I would do would be a little different. Wanting to do something and actually doing something are two different things. A modified way is better than no way, I believe. I trust people to do the right things."

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