Drown, Gray and the politics of work Criticism, support for employees help define candidates for '98.

July 12, 1996

DARREL DROWN, chairman of the Howard County Council, blundered mightily when he made a derisive remark about county employees and labor unions.

Or did he?

In accusing county workers of having a "union mentality," Mr. Drown left himself open to sharp criticism from public employees (not to mention card-carrying union members of all stripes.)

The Ellicott City Republican's subsequent apology and squirming over the remark was undoubtedly delicious to Democratic Councilman C. Vernon Gray of Columbia. The two may face off for the county executive's job in 1998.

On the other hand, Mr. Drown solidified his identification as a representative tough on the work force. It's an image that would play well, especially in a county becoming more Republican and tax-conscious with many residents concerned about big government and facing downsizing and layoffs in their own private sector jobs.

Mr. Drown's remarks came in response to a preliminary report commissioned by the Ecker administration. It suggested that pTC county employees may be overpaid and underworked. The report -- and Mr. Drown's public response -- angered workers who feel their efforts are underappreciated.

The preliminary report by a San Diego consultant recommends that the 38 percent of employees working 35 hours a week be boosted to a 40-hour week -- and compensated accordingly. This seems good advice, which would improve services to the public. As to whether employees are overpaid, that's a question a final version of the report is to answer.

For his part, Mr. Gray welcomed the opportunity to defend workers and blast Mr. Drown, saying his frequent nemesis on the council harbored an "anti-worker mentality" that's "consistent with the whole Republican mentality."

This issue helps define their divergent philosophies. Mr. Gray believes government and its employees play an important role in maintaining quality of life for residents. Mr. Drown, conversely, thinks the public wants government to provide little more than essential services. The report framed a debate that could be a key issue in county elections that are still two years off, but closing fast.

Pub Date: 7/12/96

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