AS CHAIRMAN of Howard County Republicans, Allan Kittleman can't take sides in primary contests. But he has the perfect slogan for Chuck Ecker's uphill GOP gubernatorial race.
"He can say, 'I will do for Maryland what I've done for Howard County,' " says Mr. Kittleman, chairman of the county's Republican Party. "The best thing going for Chuck is that Howard County is probably the best-run county in the state."
It would be nonsense for Mr. Ecker to claim credit for the county's high-performing schools, its affluence, its quality-of-life amenities, all its business growth. Much of the transformation from Ruralville to Fantasyland happened while he was a school administrator. But he did lead Howard through a difficult economic period, when state and local budgets were slumping. He cut government and raised fees, including charging residents for trash collection for the first time.
The avuncular county executive can't boast of any spectacular initiatives. His most visible imprimatur is the welcome mat he's left at the county's doorstep for small- and mid-sized businesses. His "what's good for General Physics is good for Howard" approach is a trickle-down philosophy he believes is responsible for the county's job growth in recent years.
As governor, he says he would provide "consistent, predictable government, one that doesn't change the rules in the middle of the ballgame," something he accuses the governor of doing.
Mr. Ecker's most imminent and formidible obstacle, Republican front-runner Ellen R. Sauerbrey, also carries a business-friendly message, but without his moderation on social issues.
Speaking to journalists before her speech Wednesday to the Columbia Rotary Club at the Columbia Inn, Mrs. Sauerbrey repeated her promise to make Maryland more competitive with surrounding states in attracting and retaining businesses. But she was among the most conservative House of Delegates members, where she was the minority leader, while Mr. Ecker has positioned himself in the middle of his party.
Mrs. Sauerbrey said she was gratified and encouraged by a recent poll that gave her 61 percent of Republican support statewide, but knows she can't ascribe too much importance to the number.
She calls her support "very solid" but acknowledges that "you never take anything for granted. I would never assume I'm a foregone conclusion."
Mrs. Sauerbrey reserved her venom for Gov. Parris N. Glendening, attacking his plan to spend an additional $250 million over the next five years on Prince George's County schools, perhaps his most important political base. "Once again, he is trying to find a subdivision where his support seems to be eroding and is trying to shore it up," she said.
But she had nothing but positive things to say about Mr. Ecker, calling him a "talented administrator" with a "great background."
She certainly would prefer not to face him in a primary. Rumors have persisted for months that her campaign staff wants him to swap his candidacy for the promise of a Cabinet-level position in a Sauerbrey administration. She said she never made such an offer but left the door ajar.
"I'm certainly going to be looking for administrators like Chuck Ecker when I put my administration together," Mrs. Sauerbrey said invitingly.
Mr. Ecker, however, still thinks an Ecker administration can rise to power in Annapolis.
If that is to happen, he will need a statewide coordinator to focus his campaign. He's running on the strength of his seven-year administrative record -- "I've proved I can do it. I have experience, she doesn't" -- at the same time that he contends that he's not a politician, in the pejorative sense.
Meanwhile, local observers are waiting to see whether C. Vernon Gray will abandon his race for the county executive position that Mr. Ecker must leave after two terms now that he has something more to lose than his seat on the County Council.
He was elected last month as first vice president of the National Association of Counties, an unpaid job that gives him a chance to schmooze with top Washington policy makers, including the White House.
Door No. 3 for Gray?
He will become NACo president in 1999 as long as he is an elected official at the time. His council seat is the safest in the county. The executive's job would be infinitely more rewarding in terms of local power and pay.
Will he keep the fabulous prize that he's won, or will he go for what's behind Door No. 3?
Without Mr. Gray, however, Democrats would lack a big name.
The other Democrat expressing a desire to run is former state Sen. Thomas M. Yeager -- emphasis on the word "former." Names bounced around in the past include U. S. Attorney Lynne A. Battaglia, state Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer and Maryland Lottery Director Buddy Roogow, but none appear ready to run.
The list of candidates could change, depending on whether Mr. Gray is game for the gamble.
Mr. Ecker seems to be, though he has less to lose.
Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.
Pub Date: 8/10/97