Gray faces battle if he runs for executive Some say councilman must woo businesses to compete in '98 race

November 19, 1995|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

Even Councilman C. Vernon Gray's friends say he faces an uphill battle if he chooses to run for the Howard County executive's office in 1998.

The longtime Democratic councilman -- who told friends and supporters at a $250-a-person fund raiser last week that he will explore that possibility -- would be a "Formidable" candidate, say Democrats and Republicans.

But these same political observers also say that if the election were today, he likely would lose. And they believe Mr. Gray knows that -- and therefore may have to spend the next three years trying to mend political fences and broaden his voter appeal.

This week, Mr. Gray said he did not want to talk about his potential candidacy with a reporter.

Among the key factors coming into play if he runs for Howard's top political office would be his relations with the county's business community.

As a liberal Democrat from Columbia, Mr. Gray may be swimming against the conservative currents of the Republicanization of such wealthy suburban areas as Howard -- currents that have given Executive Charles I. Ecker two terms in office.

Democrats, who held a 2-to-1 lead in voter registration in Howard in the mid-1980s, now lead by only 1.3 to 1. And Mr. Gray, 56, who first was elected to County Council in 1982 and has been re-elected three times, has been identified as the county's quintessential liberal.

Mr. Gray sponsored county legislation that at the time it was passed was the toughest anti-smoking measure on the East Coast. Equally tough was the law he framed that barred the county from buying any goods or services from companies doing business in South Africa during apartheid or from suppliers doing business with those companies.

This record does not sit well with the county's business community, without whose support it is becoming increasingly difficult to win an election in Howard.

Mr. Gray will have to convince business leaders that he will be as friendly to them as Mr. Ecker has been. He also will have to raise an estimated $350,000 to make a run for the executive's chair -- much of it from the business community.

"He's positioning himself more in the middle of the road, like President Clinton," said supporter Rabbi Martin Siegel of Columbia.

The big-ticket fund-raiser, quietly held at a Columbia attorney's home Wednesday, may have been the start of efforts to woo the county's business forces. But Mr. Gray's fence mending will have to go further.

"He will have been in office 16 years, longer than any other Democrat," in 1998, said Democratic Central Committee member George L. Layman. "That's a long time to make friends and influence enemies."

Mr. Gray has plenty of both.

Some old-line Democrats say they never will support him.

They blame him for the 1990 defeat of incumbent County Executive M. Elizabeth Bobo, now a state delegate, and never have forgiven him. They believe if he had done more to help her in his district -- where he was running unopposed for councilman -- she would have beaten County Executive Charles I. Ecker.

In and of themselves, such resentments will not spoil Mr. Gray's chances, said Carole Fisher, chairwoman of the Democratic Central Committee. "I don't know of anybody who hasn't got enemies and friends," she said.

Although the field of 1998 Democratic candidates for the Howard executive seat is open -- state Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, former Del. Virginia M. Thomas and Buddy Roogow, assistant chief of staff to Gov. Parris N. Glendening and former county administrator, are among the other potential contenders -- Mr. Gray's candidacy "would be considered favorably" by most of the Democratic faithful, Ms. Fisher believes.

"Vernon has paid his dues 10 times over," she said. "He has worked very, very hard" on behalf of the party.

Mr. Layman, who ran a losing campaign for the Ellicott City council seat against incumbent Republican Darrell Drown in the last election, agrees. "No one did more for me in the last election than Vernon," he said.

Even Kathryn Mann, a Bobo supporter who ran against Mr. Gray in the 1994 Democratic primary, said Mr. Gray's potential candidacy is good for the party. "I'm happy to have someone [in the race] who will be talking about the issues that need to be talked about," she said. "That's always good. I expect and hope we'll have a lot of candidates."

Ms. Mann said she doubts that Mr. Gray has enough support countywide to win the county executive's race, however. "But if that's what he wants, he should by all means go after it and see what the people think," she said.

Winning outside Columbia, where the county is growing increasingly suburban and Republican, is becoming a Herculean task for any Democrat. But it may not be impossible, said Earl Armiger, a Republican, president of Orchard Development Corp. and former county business person of the year.

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