Ecker is still weighing bid for governor County executive aims to make decision by 1st week in December

But delay still possible

Sauerbrey camp hints at high-level job if he doesn't challenge her

November 24, 1996|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

A few months back, Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker had the buzz: Word was out that he might run for governor. Friends and supporters slapped him on the back, offered their help. With a smile, he talked of forming an exploratory committee right after the election.

But now -- with the election three weeks gone and his 68th birthday two weeks away -- Ecker has settled into deep indecision over whether to begin a campaign that would be his most grueling, expensive and difficult.

To make his decision more complicated, supporters of Ellen R. Sauerbrey -- his likely rival in a Republican primary -- have made overtures to Ecker about a top administration job if he joins forces with her. Del. Robert L. Flanagan, an Ellicott City Republican and Sauerbrey loyalist, recently held a fund-raiser with Sauerbrey and Ecker as co-hosts.

Although all sides publicly deny it, speculation has centered on the possibility of Ecker becoming Sauerbrey's running mate.

Ecker could bring moderate politics, administrative experience and charm to the ticket, but such a move could deepen fissures among local Republicans because Sauerbrey's 1994 running mate was a former Howard police chief, Paul H. Rappaport, who has considerable influence in the party.

But a bigger worry for Ecker, his close advisers say, is Sauerbrey herself.

She lost to Gov. Parris N. Glendening by 5,993 votes in 1994 and has a commanding lead in organization, name recognition and money in her quest to claim the Republican nomination in 1998.

The combination of factors makes for an extraordinarily difficult decision for Ecker.

Even his closest advisers aren't betting on whether he will run. Ecker says he plans to decide by the first week in December, but he has delayed similar deadlines before.

His mood -- and concern over the cost of a campaign -- showed at a luncheon with local real estate agents Thursday.

Former Gov. William Donald Schaefer, the luncheon speaker, plugged an Ecker candidacy, telling the group, "Charlie is a great candidate for governor. I don't have any hesitancy at all, because he is a good man."

But when several real estate agents asked Ecker later what they could do to help, he replied with a smile as he walked away, "How about three or four million dollars?"

Ecker's supporters compare his current indecision -- and the tremendous odds against him -- to his 1990 campaign for county executive.

Republican activists began courting Ecker, a retired school administrator who was then a Democrat, in May 1989. He didn't decide to run until shortly before announcing his candidacy nine months later.

And less than a year after his announcement, he became the first Republican elected Howard County executive.

"He may take a little while to get there, but once the decision's made, it's there," said Columbia attorney Michael W. Davis, Ecker's campaign chairman since 1990. "He wouldn't be talking this way if there wasn't a part of him that really wanted this."

In his two terms as county executive, Ecker has become an enormously popular political figure in Howard County -- thanks to a frozen tax rate, his uncontroversial style and self-deprecating charm.

Davis said Ecker could run for governor much as he has run for county executive, on economic development and fiscal conservatism, with moderate stands on social issues.

But running for governor would be a dramatically different battle for Ecker, who has never faced a serious challenge within his party or raised money on the scale necessary for a successful gubernatorial bid.

In his landslide re-election campaign in 1994, Ecker spent $250,000. Glendening, who spent $5.2 million in 1994, has raised more than $1 million for 1998. Sauerbrey, who hopes to raise $4 million for 1998, has raised $184,000.

In his latest financial disclosure, Ecker had $2,900 in a general campaign fund. He said he had lined up a few members for an exploratory committee but had done little else to begin the intense fund raising needed for a gubernatorial run.

In an interview, Schaefer said Ecker needs "fire in the belly" to run. "He's got the lighter fluid, he's got the matches, but it's not blazing yet. It's smoldering."

The only Republican to demonstrate a blazing desire to run for governor is Sauerbrey.

Since her narrow loss in 1994, she has campaigned full-speed as if the election were weeks, rather than years, away. In the process, she has locked down much of her grass-roots support. Many Republicans, including some of Howard's top elected officials, say she deserves another chance.

"Ellen has almost unbelievable support around the state. She's out every day and out almost every night," said Del. Robert H. Kittleman of West Friendship, the House Republican leader. "I think it would be very difficult for anyone in the whole world to beat Ellen Sauerbrey in a Republican primary."

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