Howard's Ecker eyes governor's office Executive hopes to again beat the odds, as he did in 1990 win

Campaign 1998

October 29, 1997|By Craig Timberg and C. Fraser Smith | Craig Timberg and C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

In an article in yesterday's editions of The Sun, a statement characterizing Charles I. Ecker's victory over Elizabeth Bobo in the 1990 Howard County executive's race as "definitely an anti-Bobo vote" should have been attributed to Bobo.

The Sun regrets the errors.

Seven years ago, Charles Isaac Ecker played out one of America's most enduring political myths: He was the outsider who through hard work and common sense defied conventional wisdom to beat a seemingly unbeatable opponent.

The reality of the election that made Ecker the Howard County executive in 1990 was messier. He wasn't such an outsider and his opponent wasn't as strong as local political legend supposed.


But today, as the 68-year-old Republican begins a run for governor against odds at least as great, the 1990 upset is more than a blueprint. It is a heady -- some say misleading -- inspiration for a man better known for his pragmatic nature.

Running as a pro-business moderate with executive credentials, Ecker hopes to surprise again by beating conservative Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the 1994 GOP gubernatorial nominee, in next September's primary.

Political observers say Ecker's singular political gift is his ability to portray himself as everyman -- a decent, ordinary guy who walked out of a Carroll County cornfield and into the county executive's office in Howard.

Asked about his seven years as executive, he smiles and quips in his country rasp, "I've shown anybody can do it."

Party leaders consider him a long shot, but Ecker and his supporters have known only victory in his short political career.

"If Chuck had listened to the political experts," said campaign chairman Michael W. Davis, "he wouldn't have run in 1990."

Ecker's story began in 1928 on a 12-acre farm in Uniontown, a few miles west of Westminster. His father worked at a cement plant and his mother stayed home to raise the family. "I grew up milking cows and slopping chickens and gathering eggs," Ecker said.

Neither parent finished high school, but Ecker graduated from Westminster High at age 16. After two years in the Navy, he went to Western Maryland College and, after graduating, began teaching science and physical education in Carroll County.

By 1964, when he received his doctorate in education from the University of North Carolina, he had found his life's work as a school administrator, with a specialty in fiscal matters.

Politics calls

When Howard Republicans began recruiting him for the county executive's race in 1989, he was retiring as the county school system's second-in-charge -- a position he had held in two districts over 25 years without becoming superintendent.

He was also a Democrat -- an affiliation adopted without question by many Marylanders of Ecker's generation -- and had no experience in electoral politics. But several Howard Republicans spotted what they considered a politically marketable blend of local stature, natural gregariousness and fiscal expertise.

"I had seen his fiscal and financial style," said Howard County Councilman Darrel E. Drown, who was schools budget chief under Ecker and a GOP activist. "I knew he was a Republican."

Ecker -- who said he rarely voted Democratic in presidential elections -- switched parties without remorse. In December 1989, he stood before a small gathering of reporters and GOP faithful to announce he would challenge the sitting county executive, Democrat Elizabeth Bobo.

No Republican had won the county executive's office since the job's creation in 1968. Most of Howard's political community thought Bobo, who had won by a wide margin in 1986, would easily be re-elected.

"There were about a dozen people who thought it was possible to do this thing," recalls GOP consultant Carol Arscott, who helped recruit Ecker in 1989. "He was always one of those people."

Another was Ecker's wife, Peggy, now his most enthusiastic supporter in the run for governor.

Long shot pays off

Ecker began the 1990 race far behind in campaign cash and name recognition, but he was better known than many thought at the time.

In July 1990 -- before the campaign heated up -- a poll showed that 56 percent of voters knew Ecker, perhaps because of his years as one of the most prominent people in the Howard school system.

Bobo also proved remarkably weak for a Democratic incumbent. A growth moratorium she imposed to curb sprawl infuriated local builders and the business community.

Ecker's campaign focused mainly on her record, though he refused to air a particularly biting commercial based on a popular Nike ad campaign featuring two-sport star Bo Jackson and guitar legend Bo Diddley. The Ecker commercial would have ended with the line, "Bobo don't know diddly."

"He would not let us do it," Arscott recalls. "We begged."

But Ecker was not without a will to win. To bolster his meager campaign fund raising, he lent his campaign $30,000 -- an amount that would have been virtually impossible to recoup had he lost.

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