Howard County Police Chief James N. Robey, aggressively courted by local Democrats, says he is giving "serious consideration" to entering the 1998 county executive race.
If he does run -- and Robey says he will decide by the end of the year -- he will step down as police chief.
"I am not willing to talk politics while I'm chief of police," he said.
Democrats hope Robey, a 56-year-old Howard County native, will be their version of Charles I. Ecker. In 1990, Republicans plucked the retired school administrator from the political sidelines and saw him win in a stunning upset.
Ecker has been county executive since. In that time, Republicans have gained strength and now have at least two strong candidates -- County Councilmen Charles C. Feaga and Dennis R. Schrader -- for Howard's top elected job.
Few Democrats are positioned well for a countywide run. The obvious front-runner, Councilman C. Vernon Gray of Columbia, is widely expected to skip the race for fear of losing his coveted post as vice president of the National Association of Counties.
Gray has not announced his decision, but a fifth run for County Council would be far safer because he is considered a shoe-in for re-election, and he must remain a county official to keep his NACo job.
Many local Democrats expect Gray to withdraw from the county executive race at a fund-raiser he has scheduled for Nov. 5, the 15th anniversary of his election to the County Council.
Local Democrats aren't waiting. They have scrambled for alternatives to Gray since his election to NACo in July, which coincided with Robey's growing interest in trading police work for politics.
"There's a huge vacuum on the Democratic side," said Republican state Del. Robert L. Flanagan of Ellicott City. "Somebody's going to get sucked in. Why not Jim Robey? He's a good alternative."
After 32 years with the Howard County Police Department and eight years as chief, Robey is not free of political baggage, but Democrats like the idea of fielding a political outsider who can spout traditionally Republican themes of law and order.
Sought by both parties
Robey, who lives in the Valley Mede section of Ellicott City, flirted this spring with the idea of running for County Council, but he has rejected that idea.
In August, state Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, a Columbia Democrat who had considered running for county executive, called Robey to suggest that he consider the idea.
"Evidently, he had thought about it already," Kasemeyer recalled.
Both parties, in fact, had begun whispering in Robey's ear about the county executive's job.
Circuit Court Clerk Margaret D. Rappaport, who fancies herself something of a ward boss for the conservative wing of Howard's Republican Party, has deep ties to Robey.
Her husband, former lieutenant governor candidate Paul H. Rappaport, promoted Robey to second in command when he was police chief. Robey's son works in Margaret Rappaport's office.
She says she sounded him out about running for county executive -- as a Republican -- two years ago during a meeting at PJ's, an Ellicott City restaurant and a Republican hangout. She now supports Feaga for county executive but professes admiration for Robey.
"I think he's conservative," said Rappaport. "I think he'd be a plus for the county. He has my philosophies."
But Robey, a lifelong Democrat, says he has no plan to change parties -- though his wife and children are Republicans.
Name recognition and more
Democrats have focused on Robey in recent months as Gray's candidacy has looked less certain.
"I think Jim Robey would be a very credible candidate," said Carole Fisher, chairwoman of Howard's Democratic Central Committee. "He certainly has a lot of countywide name recognition. My impression of him has always been very good."
State Del. Frank S. Turner of Columbia, also a Democrat, said, "He would be an excellent candidate if he decided to run for county executive."
Other than county executive, the most politically charged job in county government may be police chief. He faces demands from elected officials, administrators, the public and his officers. Union troubles helped topple Robey's two predecessors.
But he is untested in the skills needed to win an election -- raising money, crafting a message and old-fashioned campaigning.
Not ready for 'PrimeTime'?
Some Republicans have begun sizing up Robey and believe his police record is vulnerable.
"I think what you'll find with a Robey candidacy is you'll see a real peeling off of his police record," said Columbia pollster Brad Coker, a supporter of Schrader's. "There's been a couple of bizarre incidents."
A 1995 sting against local massage parlors unraveled in the face of charges that police officers were unnecessarily engaging in sex acts during undercover investigations. Prosecutors dropped most of the charges against the masseuses.
More damaging was an appearance on the ABC News show "PrimeTime Live."