Ecker to enter race for governor Howard Co. executive set to announce his candidacy next week

October 23, 1997|By Craig Timberg and C. Fraser Smith | Craig Timberg and C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker, a Republican known for his blend of folksy wit and fiscal savvy, will formally enter the race for governor with an announcement in Ellicott City on Wednesday.

Republican Party leaders consider Ecker, 68, a long shot against 1994 gubernatorial nominee Ellen R. Sauerbrey, 60. Even some of his closest allies in Howard tried to talk him out of running after a poll in July showed Sauerbrey's popularity high among party faithful.

Ecker was an untried political player in 1990 when he upset an incumbent county executive. Now he is going forward based on his widely praised record as a two-term executive in Howard, one of the state's fastest-growing and most-prosperous counties.

He declined yesterday to comment on his plans, saying, "We will let you know next week, when and where."

But several sources said Ecker plans a formal announcement Wednesday at Turf Valley Resort & Conference Center in Ellicott City.

Ecker, who must step down when his second term ends next year, has seriously considered running for governor for more than a year and worked aggressively to raise money since spring.

Campaign sources say he has about $100,000 in the bank -- an amount far smaller than the several-million-dollar campaign fund that many regard as necessary to run a campaign for governor.

Several of his longtime supporters worry Ecker has started too slowly to effectively challenge Sauerbrey, whose campaign has been in overdrive almost since the day in 1994 when she lost to Gov. Parris N. Glendening by fewer than 6,000 votes.

Political consultant Carol Arscott, who as Howard GOP chairwoman in 1989 recruited Ecker for the county executive's race, urged him not to run for governor after a poll in July put Sauerbrey's support at 61 percent of likely GOP primary voters.

Ecker had 16 percent in the same poll, by Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research of Columbia.

"The results of the poll were very clear and very stark," Arscott said. "It was clear that Republican primary voters view Ellen Sauerbrey as something of an incumbent and were quite eager to vote for her."

Sauerbrey welcomed Ecker into the race yesterday.

"Competition is part of the process," she said. "Primaries are a sign of a growing party, a sign that the prize is worth winning and that the incumbent is vulnerable."

From the standpoint of fund raising and name recognition -- 98 percent of Marylanders know Sauerbrey, according to some polls -- "We're doing very well," she said.

The party's Maryland chairwoman, Joyce Lyons Terhes, said an Ecker candidacy means the Maryland GOP can choose between "two people of high caliber seeking the party's nomination."

But others in the GOP said Ecker's belief that he can run successfully may be based on a misreading of Sauerbrey's come-from-obscurity success in 1994. Circumstances of the two campaigns are fundamentally different, they say.

"I think it will be very, very difficult for Chuck to get a foothold in the party," said David Blumberg, the GOP chairman in Baltimore. "A lot of people feel she deserves another chance because she came so close in '94."

Del. Robert H. Kittleman, a Howard Republican and Sauerbrey ally, said Ecker is "absolutely superb" as county executive. But in the governor's race, Kittleman said, "I don't think he has any chance."

Others in the party disagree, including former GOP U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, whom Sauerbrey defeated for the party gubernatorial nomination in 1994 -- and who remains embittered by that defeat.

Also supporting Ecker is state Sen. Robert R. Neall, a former Anne Arundel County executive who was once thought of as a strong gubernatorial contender until he declined to run four years ago.

Neall and Ecker became friends during the early 1990s, when both were county executives struggling with a recession that caused fiscal trouble in both counties.

"This guy's a two-term county executive who's done, by all accounts, a good job," said Neall. "That to my mind makes him a very credible candidate."

Pub Date: 10/23/97

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