Pep talk, party mark opening of Ecker office Despite festive mood, candidate is lagging in support, fund raising

March 01, 1998|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker celebrated the opening of his statewide campaign headquarters in Ellicott City yesterday with a pep talk and party intended to energize his volunteers for the long, uphill race for governor.

About 100 supporters -- many dressed in Ecker's favorite color, teal -- gathered at the new headquarters in Normandy Shopping Center on U.S. 40. The campaign moved its operations there from the basement of Ecker's Columbia home.

"We want to do for the state what we've done for Howard County," Ecker, a Republican, told his supporters. "We need your help."

Ecker led Howard -- one of the state's fastest growing and most prosperous counties -- through the recession of the early 1990s, earning high marks for maintaining services while increasing taxes just twice.

The county also added 20,000 jobs from 1990 to 1996 -- the best rate in Maryland and evidence, Ecker says, of a business-friendly climate under his administration.

But polls by Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research in Columbia show Ecker badly trailing his primary election opponent, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the 1994 GOP gubernatorial nominee. Campaign finance reports show Ecker far behind in raising money.

Ecker has kept a busy public schedule for months as he seeks supporters outside his Howard base, though yesterday's crowd had a heavy concentration of local people, including several county government officials and GOP candidates for other offices.

"People that know Chuck like Chuck," said Howard County Councilman Charles C. Feaga, a Republican who hopes to win Ecker's job in November. "If he can get around the state enough to let people get to know him, he could be a winner."

Volunteer Mary Lyon lives in Baltimore County but is a former Howard resident. The self-described "recovering Democrat" changed parties three months ago to support Ecker.

"He answers his own e-mail. He's a very hands-on person," Lyon said. "What you see is what you get with Chuck."

Campaign officials also like to contrast Ecker's resume -- which includes eight years as an executive and many more as a school administrator -- with Sauerbrey's, a former state legislator.

Volunteer Bill Chesnutt, a retired Howard County principal, said, "When you've lived as long as I have, you find people can be excellent legislators and poor administrators. It's not the same skills."

Supporters hope Ecker's quiet, competent style appeals to voters in a year marked by scandal in the State House.

Former state senator Larry Young was expelled for ethics violations in January. Former delegate Gerald J. Curran resigned under an ethics cloud Friday. And House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. also faces ethics questions related to a friend's deal for coal rights.

Ecker did not mention those issues directly, but he has dusted off one of his old campaign slogans from his county executive races. P-I-E, he told supporters, stands for predictability, integrity and efficiency.

"I want to put PIE in state government," he said.

Former U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, a key GOP supporter from outside Howard, had an even simpler slogan for Ecker's campaign yesterday.

"Work like hell," she said. "Raise a lot of money."

Pub Date: 3/01/98

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