Ecker looks for issues among the leaves

November 16, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

CHARLES ECKER'S taking an autumn leaf of absence. He's the Howard County executive, and he's newly announced as a Republican candidate for governor of Maryland, but it's 10 o'clock last Tuesday morning when the rest of the world is racing around, and he's raking leaves in his yard when he should be out somewhere looking for votes.

"I gotta get these up first," he says, meaning mounds of leaves still damp from last weekend's rains. "Then I'll worry about the governor's race."

As it happens, it's Veterans Day, so he's got some workday flexibility. But some think he's already running late. Ellen Sauerbrey hasn't come up for air since she lost that squeaker to Parris Glendening three years ago, and the latest figures out of Annapolis show every candidate -- Glendening, Sauerbrey and Democrat Eileen Rehrmann -- with bankrolls that make Ecker's look puny. Also, the early voter polls are pretty dismal.

Ecker seems oblivious. Out there in the yard, he's like any suburbanite momentarily unconcerned with anything beyond the world of leafdom. He's so outwardly content, you'd think he knows something the rest of the world doesn't.

And maybe he does.

The money? "Heck, I've only been trying to raise funds for the last few months," he says, sloughing off last week's figures showing Glendening with about $1.5 million on hand, Sauerbrey with about $424,000, Rehrmann with about $206,000 and Ecker with only about $86,000.

The polls? "My figures in July were the same as [Sauerbrey's] just before her primary. She only had two months to catch up. I've got most of a year"

But there's something else he senses: There's a discontent in the air, a notion that a lot of voters aren't too crazy with the apparent front-runners.

"What got me into this," he says, "is all the people coming up to me and saying they just don't want the same choice as last time. For one thing, they want someone with integrity. They mention Glendening, they have a lot of questions about him. A lot of times, they mention the slot machine deal with Schmoke."

He means the deal that Glendening says he never made. Mayor Kurt Schmoke says the governor agreed to slot machines for the financially pressed city. The governor, reading a few polls for moral guidance, and henceforth believing he'd found an issue on which to look forthright (and also not wishing to be linked with any sort of gambling interests, since he'd already taken illegal money from the racetracks) said, Whoops, must have been a misunderstanding, I never made such a deal.

"They question that," Ecker said, "and they question the income tax cut, which was OK, but he didn't cut expenditures while he was doing it, meaning we'll have a shortfall or a deficit in three or four years."

That tax cut, as everyone knows, was not exactly Glendening's baby. Ellen Sauerbrey wanted a big one, so Glendening reluctantly figured he'd cut into her big issue by OK'ing a small one, a gesture of compromise.

But this raises a natural question: What's Ecker's big issue? Sauerbrey overcame an undistinguished legislative career, plus a relatively anemic bank account, plus heavy Democratic registration, and nearly pulled off a historic upset -- because the tax cut idea hit a nerve.

And Ecker?

"I don't have an issue yet," he says flatly.

He doesn't quite stifle a yawn as he says it, but he seems unconcerned. He's a guy with plenty of time, enough time to rake a few leaves, to straighten up the yard, and something's bound to come up.

"We're looking," he says. "One that's good today may not be good next June. I don't have a burning issue yet. You got one?"

Actually, yeah: It's that same issue Ecker says he keeps hearing, the discontent with the front-runners. Glendening's been caught in a number of integrity issues; and Sauerbrey, questioning the integrity of the last gubernatorial vote count, wound up making herself look bad.

She claimed there were 50,000 illegal votes, and later "amended" it to 14,000. Claimed 4,774 inmates voted illegally, and later changed it to "some." Claimed "hundreds" of dead people somehow voted, then changed it to "a handful." Claimed 49,000 false addresses were listed, then changed it to 4,300. And, by the time she took her case to court, she embarrassed herself by having to drop every specific numerical allegation.

"I thought she went too far," Ecker says of that debacle. "I don't know about any voter fraud, because I wasn't involved in the race. There might have been something to it, I don't know. But, when an election's over, it's over. If I'd have been her, I wouldn't have challenged."

All of which gets back to his original issue: integrity, and the general uneasiness with the perceived front-runners.

It gives him hope as he struggles with another pile of leaves, and refuses to let himself get discouraged.

Pub Date: 11/16/97

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