Evans seen as ready to oppose Gary Councilwoman says she'll announce intentions in Jan.

Poll gives her optimism

Backers of executive give her little chance for a historic upset

December 16, 1997|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Confounding the predictions of Republican Party leaders, Anne Arundel County Councilwoman Diane R. Evans is expected to announce next month an inter-party challenge to County Executive John G. Gary.

Although the 49-year-old former child-support collector from Arnold will say only that she is "very, very seriously considering" the September Republican primary, those close to Evans say she has become convinced recently that she can beat the incumbent.

Her optimism springs from a poll her supporters commissioned Nov. 18-20 that showed her and Gary in a dead heat -- with Gary receiving 34 percent of likely primary votes, Evans 32 percent and "undecided" 34 percent.

During an interview yesterday, Evans said she will make her official announcement during a rally planned for the first week of January.

And the former County Council chairwoman sketched her likely campaign strategy. She would portray Gary as an old-style political boss in the pocket of developers who turns women off with his bullying style.

Gary's supporters, however, say Evans has no chance of becoming the first challenger in county history to beat an incumbent executive.

They point to Gary's successes in keeping taxes low while simultaneously hiring 60 more police officers, building a new jail and courthouse and accumulating a $36 million surplus.

And some criticize Evans -- who served as council chair from 1994 until last month -- as someone often critical of the Gary administration without passing any substantial policies of her own.

Evans said the real issues are her longtime rival's autocratic character and his willingness to take thousands of dollars in contributions from developers.

Contribution records

Campaign contribution records submitted last month showed that the Gary campaign had received $4,000 from the John E. Harms Jr. and Associates construction engineering firm; $3,950 from the G. W. Koch Associates development company; and the same amount from the Sturbridge Development Corp.

Gary's war chest is more than 10 times the size of his potential opponent's. He has $220,000 in the bank compared with Evans' $15,000.

"In the last three years, we have had an increased number of people in the county becoming distrustful of government," Evans said.

"People are worried about a select group of developers who are able to get access to county government for special favors. People are concerned about 'bossism' -- when the person at the head of county government speaks, the lieutenants follow suit, or they are frozen out."

Evans said that happened to her last February when Gary canceled his regular weekly meetings with her and angrily threatened the county auditor because he disapproved of her handling of an audit of the county jail.

Supporters' view

Gary could not be reached for comment. But his supporters said his contributions from developers have no impact on his policies. And they added that Evans' attack on Gary's character shows she's desperate.

"That just shows that she has a lack of substantial issues," said state Del. Phil Bisset, a Republican from Mayo and Gary supporter.

"We are not voting for Mr. Congeniality here. We are talking about substantial public policy accomplishments, of which John has many and Diane none."

George Shenk, treasurer for the Friends of John Gary campaign committee, sketched a couple of possible Gary campaign themes: Gary as a man who "kept his promise" by putting $120 million into school renovation during his four years in office and hiring 20 new police officers a year.

One issue that surfaced during the Nov. 18-20 poll of 407 Republican primary voters by the Mason Dixon Campaign Polling and Strategy Inc. was a gender gap between Evans and Gary supporters.

The poll showed that while Evans and Gary were neck-and-neck among all voters, Evans took 43 percent of the female vote and only 21 percent of the male vote, and Gary took 44 percent of the male vote and only 23 percent of the female vote.

The rest were undecided.

Pronounced differences

These differences became more pronounced when Evans' campaign asked whom voters would support if they were told that Gary "is the current county executive who has vigorously promoted development in Anne Arundel County" and that he "is often confrontational and has occasionally abused the powers of his office."

When potential voters heard this advertising pitch from the Evans campaign, 47 percent of all voters supported Evans and 25 percent supported Gary.

Evans in this case received 60 percent of the female vote and 35 percent of the male vote. And Gary received 33 percent of the male vote and 16 percent of the female vote.

Joyce Terhes, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, said that an Evans challenge to Gary would be divisive to the party. And she added that playing on gender differences probably would fail as a strategy for Evans.

"I think that women are too smart to say, 'Just because I'm a woman, I'm going to vote for a woman,' " said Terhes.

Pub Date: 12/16/97

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