Ousted by own creation

April 16, 1995|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

Masters of Howard County for most of this century, local Democrats have managed since 1990 to become the minority party in every phase of local politics except voter registration.

Fragmented and bewildered, the county's Democrats nurse old hurts and harbor deep resentments, battling on unfamiliar ground. Once a bastion of liberalism, Howard has grown conservative -- and happy to elect Republicans.

Howard Democrats blamed the 1990 ouster of most of their office-holders on anti-incumbent sentiment. But their opponents gained even more in 1994, winning a GOP majority on the County Council for the first time in history.

County Democrats now know they are in trouble -- without an obvious leader -- as they look toward the 1998 county executive's race and in dire need of new blood as their elected officials are nearly all in their 40s and 50s.

"The pendulum is swinging away from us," concedes state Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, the east Columbia Democrat who was one of the few in his party to win election last year. "The Republicans have been able to seize opportunities."

Meanwhile, Howard Republicans see everything going their way -- plenty of visible leaders, a surfeit of unified candidates and a message espoused by many voters: less government, lower taxes. The GOP's biggest worry is that its candidates may begin feuding -- like Democrats.

"Holding power is a responsibility," says Carol A. Arscott, former chairwoman of the Howard Republican Party's central committee. "If you don't deliver, they throw you out in the next election. We've got to stay in touch."

County Republicans' new-found power -- and the Democrats' loss of it -- mirrors in many ways changes on the national political scene. But it is the direct result of the changing social landscape in Howard, which has become one of the wealthiest counties in the state and nation.

"The bottom line is demographics," says Mr. Kasemeyer. "The kind of person coming to Howard County is more concerned about protecting their family's economic well-being. They see traditional Democratic principles as a threat to that well-being."

Ironically, it was Democratic County Council members sitting as the county Zoning Board who helped change the demographics that now work against them.

They did that by converting formerly rural Howard County into an attractive place for well-off suburbanites to live, says former Zoning Board Chairman Lloyd Knowles, a Democrat.

"We have excellent schools, planning and concern for the environment," he says. With an improved quality of life came a more affluent, conservative electorate. As a result, "the local Democratic party is somewhat of a victim of its own success."

Howard Democrats are still reeling from a 1990 debacle in which county Republicans swept seven Democratic incumbents from office: the county executive, a state senator, two state delegates, a County Council member, the Circuit Court clerk and an Orphans' Court judge.

To regain even a little of their lost power, Howard Democrats have to imitate Republicans in three important respects, says Mr. Kasemeyer, who was thrown out of the state Senate in 1990 but elected last year by a new district. The party is going to have to learn to build consensus, recruit young people and accept a leader, he says.

"People need to understand that united we stand, divided we fall," he says. "People are going to have to realize you can have different perspectives and still be good Democrats."

Not all take a dire view of the party's local situation.

"Compared to what's happened elsewhere in the state, Howard County isn't in that bad of shape," says Del. M. Elizabeth Bobo, the former county executive who was ousted in the 1990 Republican stampede.

Before last year's election, she notes, there was only one Howard County Democrat in the House of Delegates; now there are four.

"That's not a sign of trouble, it's a sign of improvement," she says -- even though the additional seats, including her own, were opened up by legislative redistricting and did not come at the expense of Republicans.

Four-term County Councilman C. Vernon Gray of east Columbia is philosophical. "Things tend to go in cycles," he says.

"By 1998, people will have had a chance to see how Republican programs devalued people, and we will have had a chance to show that the Democratic party still cares about people -- African-Americans, the poor, the middle class -- that we are not a one-dimensional party."

But converting that philosophy into political gains won't be easy.

Local Democrats long ago abandoned any semblance of party unity. The most telling evidence: the willingness of some Democratic leaders to support Republicans at election time.

Last year, for example, former state Sen. Thomas M. Yeager and former Democratic Central Committeewoman Kathryn Mann helped Republicans after losing their own primary battles.

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