Ecker makes it official: He'll run for governor Howard Co. executive to challenge Sauerbrey

Campaign 1988

October 30, 1997|By C. Fraser Smith and Craig Timberg | C. Fraser Smith and Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

Republican Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker formally announced his candidacy for governor yesterday, promising steady, experienced and honest leadership that would unite a divided state and brighten its business climate.

"What Maryland needs," he told a crowd of friends and supporters in Ellicott City, "is a proven leader, a leader that will temper fiscal restraint with compassion."

Many Republicans see the 68-year-old Ecker as a distinct underdog in next September's GOP primary -- and as a man who will campaign along the political high road. But yesterday, he seemed determined to show that he will set himself apart from his more conservative Republican opponent, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the party's nominee in 1994.

"The GOP is made up of thinking individuals," Ecker said. "People do not want the same choice in '98 that they had in '94."

Apparently referring to Sauerbrey's promise to cut taxes sharply and reduce the size of state government, Ecker said his administration would be "evolutionary" not "revolutionary." And he repeatedly observed that Sauerbrey, a former member of the House of Delegates, has no administrative experience. Before his eight years as county executive, Ecker spent 36 years as a teacher and school administrator.

"My style, my accomplishments are in sharp contrast to my opponent," he said. "I have not only talked about fiscal responsibility, my administration has practiced it."

Believed to be well behind Sauerbrey in rank-and-file GOP support as well as in campaign funds, Ecker reminded his backers that he had been discounted as a political candidate when he first ran for county executive. Almost no one thought he could win.

"I did," he said.

In a statement, Sauerbrey welcomed Ecker into the race.

"I am pleased that the Republican Party has reached the point of maturity where we have contested primaries. I expect the primary to be a model of civility that will enable Maryland Republicans to make an informed choice about whose vision for our state will serve us best as we enter the 21st century."

Unlike many front-runners, Sauerbrey, 60, issued an invitation to debate -- and Ecker accepted.

"Next summer, when the campaign heats up, sure," he said.

Ecker made his announcement at the Turf Valley Resort and Conference Center, where his audience was enthusiastic but appeared swollen by the many businessmen and women who were attending a Howard County Chamber of Commerce expo there.

While the crowd greeted Ecker's announcement with warm applause, the absence of elected Howard Republicans in the group underscored just how steep his challenge appears to be. He was joined by two county councilmen and the county state's attorney, Marna McLendon. But not a single member of Howard's General Assembly delegation has endorsed Ecker. Some are close Sauerbrey advisers.

"She's going to get the nomination," Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a Howard Republican, said earlier in the day. "Chuck's decision to continue running under these circumstances is puzzling."

Also missing yesterday was former Republican Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, who has been helping Ecker raise money.

Two former Republican county executives, Roger Hayden of Baltimore County and state Sen. Robert R. Neall of Anne Arundel, were on hand, as was William S. Shepard, the party's 1990 gubernatorial nominee.

Shepard said he has made no final decision about whom to support but that he is leaning toward Ecker, whose emphasis on inclusiveness appeals to him.

One former GOP office-holder said he expects Ecker to do well among Republicans who were dismayed at the lengthy election protest mounted by Sauerbrey in 1994 after she lost to Gov. Parris N. Glendening by 5,993 votes. Ecker reminded his audience of that protest yesterday.

"I play the cards that are dealt me," he said. "I do not blame the dealer."

But his main emphasis was on his record of dealing successfully with opposing groups and of creating an atmosphere in which businesses feel comfortable.

His record as a job developer in Howard County, he said, shows what he could do as governor.

Though the county had begun to do well even before Ecker's election in 1990, Howard has added about 20,000 jobs since then and now has 103,000, according to the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson State University.

"Howard County really has the best economy of all the counties in the state right now," said economist Michael Funk. But he noted that Howard's growth rate has beaten the state average since at least 1982.

In an interview before yesterday's announcement, Ecker offered a few observations on issues but said most specifics would come later in the campaign.

He said he is opposed to allowing casinos in Maryland and believes that if the state's racing industry needs help, direct state aid would be a better way than allowing slot machines at racetracks.

Ecker also said he believes Maryland's gun-control laws are adequate and that there are none he would seek to repeal.

Pub Date: 10/30/97

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