It has the makings of a political kamikaze mission: a Republican taking on a four-term Democratic incumbent in the second-most Democratic district in the county.
County Council candidate Susan J. Cook, though, is the most experienced of several Republicans attempting to win seemingly safe Democratic seats in county politics this year. The former school board chairwoman kicks off her campaign today against C. Vernon Gray, the Democrat who has represented east Columbia on the council since 1982, at Long Reach Village Center.
"I am going against a 16-year incumbent and I am truly the underdog," Cook, 49, said last week. "I think it's time for a new perspective for that district and some new ideas."
Cook would bring a different perspective. The managing editor of The Business Monthly, she says she would quit the publication and make the council her full-time job if she wins. Gray, on the other hand, is a professor at Morgan State University, and if he wins re-election, he will become president of the National Association of Counties next year.
However, it's not clear how much Cook's ideas will differ from Gray's. Cook and Gray decry County Executive Charles I. Ecker's recently announced budget as too stingy on school spending.
"The school system really needs to get new programs, new additions moving," said Cook, who served on the school board during Howard's leanest years, from 1990 to 1996. "I think of all the things that needed to be done when I was there and we just didn't have the money to do."
Cook, like nearly every candidate in the county, also says she is worried about growth. But on the year's most controversial growth issue, the proposed Rouse Co. development in North Laurel, she said she doesn't know enough to say whether the council majority -- including Gray -- was correct to support Rouse's rezoning request.
Cook may not want to stray too far from Gray on the issues in a district that is registered solidly in Gray's favor: 52 percent Democrat, 31 percent Republican.
Although Cook is a Republican, her two-year tenure as school board chairwoman, which ended when she left the board in 1996, was marked by some disputes with the Republican-controlled council and Ecker, a Republican.
"I'm a Republican, but it is very difficult dealing with this council," Cook said in 1995 about what she saw as micromanaging by the council. Cook also complained that Ecker and council Republicans used "threatening" rhetoric and exhibited a distrust the school board's ability to manage its budget.
But even with such an independent streak, Cook knows, the numbers don't look good in this district.
"They're not going to get Vernon Gray," said Carole Fisher, chairwoman of the Howard Democratic Central Committee. "That's not a seat I'm really worried about."
Other Republican challengers in Democratic districts, such as Todd A. Arterburn, who is challenging Del. Elizabeth Bobo, are stressing their differences on the issues. Cook prefers to focus attention on her character.
"People trust my integrity. I have strong feelings about what is right and what is wrong, and I stand by them," Cook said. "What you see is what you get."
Pub Date: 4/26/98