Republican surprised by ascendancy

November 21, 1994|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

The County Council plans to elect Charles Columbus Feaga, a Republican and a farmer as its chairman Dec. 6 -- something the 62-year-old county native never thought would happen.

"Democrats ran Howard County 100 percent," when he was growing up on the same 211-acre spread he farms today in West Friendship, Mr. Feaga said. "You had to become a Democrat to get a job [in government] -- even school bus driver."

Had the Republicans been in charge, they probably would have done the same thing, he said, in which case he probably would have become a Democrat. Mr. Feaga nearly always identifies with the underdog.

It is part of the Feaga tradition. The first Feagas came to this country as Hessian soldiers fighting for the British in the Revolutionary War. They were captured and imprisoned in Frederick, and after the war, married two Frederick farm girls.

"My kids always beg me not to tell that," Mr. Feaga said with a laugh. "They want me to brag about Mama's side of the family. She could trace her lineage back to the first 20 families of Virginia."

But Mr. Feaga -- Charlie to his friends -- talks about his Hessian ancestors anyway. He doesn't know how to be other than candid.

"He's an honest, hard-working man who has always told me what he thought whether I liked it or not," said Martha Clark, president of the county Farm Bureau. "He's an excellent farmer -- one of the sharpest cattle people around."

The third of five children, Mr. Feaga has been farming as long as he can remember -- something people meeting him for the first time might never guess. The only clues are his powerful, weather-worn hands and his rock solid build -- 165 pounds compacted into a 5-foot, 8-inch frame.

In public, he is nearly always nattily attired in a blue blazer, gray slacks and a tie given him by one of his seven children. His conversation is not about livestock, crops and weather, but about people and places.

He tells, for example, about how as a small boy, German prisoners of war volunteered for work on the Feaga farm. "We gave them fried chicken, ice cream and beer on the way home," he said, but "they worked their hearts out for us -- beyond what they needed to do."

Like his father, Mr. Feaga became a farmer by necessity, not by tradition. His father bought the farm in 1932 -- the year Mr. Feaga was born -- as a way of coping with the Depression.

Charlie Feaga had planned to follow his older brother into the military. But he had to take over the farm when his father suffered a stroke during his senior year in high school. His father died four days after Mr. Feaga's graduation.

Ellicott City High School classmates kiddingly called Mr. Feaga teacher's pet because he was allowed to play varsity sports -- soccer, softball and boxing -- without having to attend practice. Coaches knew he was milking cows at 4:30 a.m. and again in the evening after school.

After his father's stroke, Principal Omar Jones called Mr. Feaga aside and told him, "Boy, come to school when you can [in the morning] and leave when you have to, but don't abuse that privilege."

"He was a lot like a dad to me," Mr. Feaga said of Mr. Jones. "He was tough in school but the kids loved him." Eighteen years later, Republican Charlie Feaga would help Democrat Omar Jones become Howard County's first county executive.

Meanwhile, Mr. Feaga was making a name for himself outside of politics, becoming president of the Howard County Farm Bureau, the Glenelg High School PTA and the West Howard County Civic Association.

The local Republican Central Committee asked him in 1970 and in 1982 to fill out their slates and run for an at-large County Council seat. He lost both times to Democrats.

He decided to make a serious run in 1986 when the county started electing council members by district. He first sold his dairy cattle and began raising beef cattle. He then put together a bipartisan coalition. "I had been working 14 hours a day, seven days a week," he said. "I knew I couldn't run for public office with those hours and I felt I needed a change for health reasons. We were debt-free. It felt like a good time to make a change."

He won easily and soon became conspicuous as the lone Republican on the council. When he spoke -- and he spoke often -- he got a hearing. "I survived the first term knowing how to get along," he said. "Maybe one out of every five things I wanted got done, but I was treated with respect."

The best thing he did, he believes, was help crush a zoning proposal sponsored by three council Democrats. The plan would have allowed only one house per 20 acres in western Howard County. "That [proposal] did more to destroy farmland than any other piece of legislation ever to become before the council," he said. "Property owners became scared and rushed to sell" to developers.

In Mr. Feaga's eyes, zoning proposals aimed at keeping farmland from subdivision border on theft. They "devalue the only asset most farmers have," he said. "It is the equivalent of destroying someone's life's savings."

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