Times are really tough for Howard's Democrats


October 05, 1997|By NORRIS WEST

THE POSSIBLE candidacy of Howard Police Chief James N. Robey for county executive speaks volumes about the weakness of the county's Democratic Party.

It is becoming obvious that the local party has no depth in its lineup. It is devoid of a farm system that grooms aspiring bright young people who share its views for elected office. Its biggest-name leaders all may be at or past their political peaks.

The heir apparent is County Councilman C. Vernon Gray, the hard-working newsmaker. But running for county executive would be a big gamble for him. Mr. Gray is set to become president of the National Association of Counties, a lofty position that allows him to travel afar to meet national and international figures as an advocate for local government.

But NACo requires its president and other board members to hold elected office. The easiest route would be for Mr. Gray to run for re-election to his council seat, which he would all but certainly retain. A run for countywide office would be far more risky. That's why his best chance of becoming king of NACo is to remain a prince of local Democrats.

The other highly recognized Democrat is former County Executive Elizabeth Bobo. She may have been en route to the governor's mansion when she was upset by County Executive Charles I. Ecker in her re-election bid seven years ago. She later settled into a quiet seat in the state legislature, which is considerably less visible than her former position. Ms. Bobo has given no indication of trying to mount a real comeback.

Then there is state Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, who represents parts of Howard and Baltimore counties. He quickly ended speculation that he would run for the county's top post.

Former state Sen. Thomas C. Yeager said a while ago that he would consider running. But that was when Mr. Gray's candidacy seemed more likely, and he wanted to offer Democrats an alternative. It would not have been an inspiring option.

GOP not a doormat anymore

Meanwhile, county Republicans, once the doormat of local politics, have an excess of wealth. The GOP has at least five figures who would be considered legitimate candidates for county executive. The party seems to have boiled down its choices to council Chairman Dennis R. Schrader and Councilman Charles C. Feaga.

Another group of young Republicans is ready to rise as candidates for top county and state offices in the future. The local GOP is the Orioles' vaunted farm system of yesteryear.

Republicans are equaling Democrats in grooming young minorities for public office. Which is to say the GOP hasn't done a damn thing, either, in spite of efforts of the African American Republican Club of Howard County. Black Republicans who might make good candidates may be too busy making money to run for public office.

Democrats have been almost frozen in time as Howard County becomes increasingly wealthy and conservative. After decades of running the county, the party has become somewhat lethargic, failing to embrace the next generation of leaders or new ideas.

To paraphrase another Democratic has-been: Where's the youth?

Now, Chief Robey may step into the void. The police chief has built an impressive 31-year career of fighting crime and runs an effective department. Recent complaints about morale in the unit have more to do with unhappiness over pay and benefits than with his leadership.

Chief Robey would be an outsider. He certainly did not come up through the ranks of the county's Democratic Party. He was appointed by Mr. Ecker, a Republican, in 1991 and has enjoyed an excellent relationship with the executive.

His law-and-order background would be a welcome quality for Democrats, a party voters associate with bleeding hearts more than with toughness on crime.

The chief would be a strong candidate -- very strong -- if not for the two mistakes that many voters hold against him for faulty police work investigating a rape and possible prostitution at massage parlors.

Prime-time blunder

The worst surfaced in the ABC newsmagazine show "PrimeTime Live" two years ago about the unreliability of lie detector tests. The report centered on the Howard County Police Department's handling of a rape case. From the outset, officers doubted the account given by a 19-year-old rape victim. Even after the rapist's arrest and confession verified the woman's story, Chief Robey said, embarrassingly, that he believed the polygraph over the victim.

Chief Robey complained that his remarks were taken out of context, but he may never be able to free himself from his unfortunate statements during the interview.

Such an awful performance on national television usually would be more than enough to disqualify anyone from a top political position, even someone with an otherwise stellar career. But with Howard's desperate Democratic Party showing no apparent sign of life, its leaders may feel they have nothing to lose.

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 10/05/97

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