Gray explores run for executive $250-a-person, private fund-raiser held for councilman

November 17, 1995|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

County Councilman C. Vernon Gray is the only local Democrat to win office in the last four county elections, dating back to 1982.

An article in Thursday's edition of The Sun for Howard County incorrectly reported the number of elections.

The Sun regrets the error.

Howard County Councilman C. Vernon Gray, the only local Democrat to survive the past three elections, quietly began this week what may be his long-anticipated run for the county executive's office.

Mr. Gray was the focus of a $250-a-person private fund-raiser held Wednesday night at the Gaither's Farm home of Columbia attorney David Abramson, former chairman of the board of directors of Howard County General Hospital.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

At the gathering, Mr. Gray told about 40 guests that he is exploring running for the top job in county government in 1998.

He said that in the near future he would meet individually with each of the guests -- mostly old friends and longtime supporters -- to see if there is "real support" for that political effort, one of those attending, Rabbi Martin Siegel of Columbia, said.

Mr. Gray refused to comment on the two-hour affair, which was not advertised, other than to say it was a "private function held in a private home."

But several of those who paid $250 apiece to dine on salmon mousse, shrimp and medallions of beef at the catered, invitation-only gathering said their main purpose was to help raise "seed money" that would allow the east Columbia Democrat to begin polling and explore his candidacy further.

Judging from an amended financial campaign report filed Jan. 31, 1995, Mr. Gray may need the seed money. The report shows a deficit of $744.87. Several guests at the Wednesday night event estimate he raised at least $10,000.

Since he first ran for office in 1982, Mr. Gray has cumulatively raised and spent more campaign money than any other council member.

Even his allies say he would need a war chest of as much as to run for the county executive's seat, held since 1990 by Republican Charles I. Ecker.

"He is letting people know up front [that a successful campaign for county executive is] going to cost $300,000 to $400,000," said Columbia activist Sherman Howell, who helped attorney Ethel B. Hill raise $40,000 in her unsuccessful run for the House of Delegates in 1994.

Both Mr. Howell and Ms. Hill attended the fund-raiser.

The only way to raise such huge sums, says attorney James B. Kraft, a Democratic political consultant who also attended, is to have small, intimate, "sophisticated" gatherings such as Wednesday night's.

The $250-a-person price tag may be the steepest ever charged in Howard County for a local fund-raiser.

It is five times what Republican Robert L. Flanagan charged for his 50th birthday fund-raiser Nov. 1 and about seven times what Democrat Edward J. Kasemeyer charged for his fund-raiser Nov. 8.

Both Mr. Kasemeyer, who represents eastern Howard County in the state Senate, and Mr. Flanagan, who represents western Howard County in the House of Delegates, are seen by members of their parties as potential candidates for county executive in 1998.

"The higher up you go in government, the more money you need," Mr. Kasemeyer said.

But he questioned whether voters would be turned off by a local campaign so expensive that candidates need to hold such private functions for well-off supporters. "It's not like you have to have a lot of television and radio advertising," he said. "There could be a big negative reaction."

Mr. Flanagan agreed.

"There are many ways to run a campaign," he said. "As you can waste a lot of money in government, so can you waste a lot of money in a campaign.

"I think the public is going to be skeptical. They are going to think you are beholden to a lot of big-ticket contributors."

Rabbi Siegel said he attended the Wednesday affair because Mr. Gray "is the senior public official in the county and has always been very generous in the area of black-Jewish issues. I appreciate his support."

The event's host, Mr. Abramson, expressed similar thoughts.

"I have known Dr. Gray chiefly through his long-standing support of the hospital," he said, "and I wanted to thank him personally and on the hospital's behalf."

Mr. Gray has always had a flair for fund-raising. Both U.S. senators from Maryland and some members of Congress from the state tend to show up at affairs to support him. The late Frank DeFrancis, the state horse-racing mogul, held a lavish fund-raiser for Mr. Gray at Laurel Raceway in 1986.

In 1990, L. Douglas Wilder, who was then governor of Virginia, showed up to stump for Mr. Gray even though Mr. Gray had no opposition in his race for County Council from either party.

In 1994, it was Gov. Parris N. Glendening, then the Democratic Party's nominee, who dropped by.

Among the notables at Wednesday night's gathering: 6th District congressional candidate Steve Crawford; Diane O. Leasure, who was sworn in last week as Howard's first female Circuit Court judge; and attorney Donna Hill Staton, who will be sworn in next week as the county's first minority Circuit Court judge. Before the appointments of Ms. Leasure and Ms. Staton, Mr. Gray had spoken to the governor on their behalf.

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