Both parties' candidates attack school-budget action GOP hopes to avoid rift over education

May 21, 1998|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

It should be no surprise that Democratic County Council candidate Guy Guzzone is already attacking the council's GOP majority as he goes door-to-door in southern Howard County, railing against Republicans for supporting a tax cut while not giving more money to education.

What might come as a surprise is that Guzzone's likely Republican opponent, Wanda Hurt, is going door-to-door with largely the same message. She, too, thinks council Republicans erred Tuesday by favoring a small cut in the piggyback tax rather than pumping millions more dollars into schools.

"I'm on the parents' side. I'm on the students' side," says Hurt, a former Oakland Mills PTA president.

In east Columbia, Republican council candidate Susan J. Cook feels the same way, sounding more like her Democratic opponent, incumbent C. Vernon Gray, than like any Republican council member (neither has primary opposition).

"I can't begin to suppose why they voted for the tax cut," Cook said of the council majority.

Avoiding conflict

Such are the unseen tensions behind the three Republican councilmen's display of unity on this year's budget. On Tuesday, Republicans Charles C. Feaga, Dennis R. Schrader and Darrel E. Drown agreed to add $3.46 million to County Executive Charles I. Ecker's budget, a significant increase but $1.2 million short of what educators wanted.

With Feaga and Schrader running against each other for county executive, the GOP didn't want a divisive education battle marring the primary race for the county's most important office. As Drown played peacemaker, Schrader chose to give schools less than he might like, and Feaga agreed to put in more cash than he wanted.

"We just didn't want warring factions within the Republican Party," Drown said.

'Swing' seat

Their truce might be costly for candidates such as Hurt, who is running for what Republicans and Democrats consider the second-most vital county office, the "swing" seat that likely will decide which party controls the council.

Though most Republican candidates this year feel the nearly 8 percent increase in next year's education budget is generous enough, Hurt, opposed in the primary by attorney Kirk Halpin, feels schools should have received more after years of tight budgets.

She is also concerned that she might lose votes because she's a Republican, though she disagrees with how the GOP executive and GOP council majority allotted education funds.

"If somebody's looking at party line, yes, it's going to hurt me," Hurt said. "People are going to have to look at me and think I would have voted differently."

Demographic problem

Part of Hurt's problem is demographic. She is running for a seat considered up for grabs in the southern Howard district represented by Schrader. The district is a mix of Democrat and Republican, blue collar and white collar, new and old county residents.

Of the other four districts, two are solidly Republican and two are solidly Democratic. That makes the Hurt-Guzzone race critical to both parties, and Democrats feel the education budget battle has given Guzzone, unopposed in the primary, an advantage in an area that cares deeply about its schools.

"I don't see how it cannot be an issue," Guzzone said. "Historically, the Democrats have consistently supported higher levels of education funding. That doesn't mean the Republicans don't care about education, [but] consistently, it's been a higher priority for Democrats."

Election-year gift

County Democrats view the fight over education as an election-year gift. For that, they thank Ecker, the Republican who proposed a $195.6 million schools operating budget -- a 6 percent increase but $9.2 million short of what educators requested -- as well as a cut in the piggyback tax from 50 percent to 48 percent of the state income tax.

"The heavens opened up, and Dr. Ecker came down with the school budget, and there we are," said Carole Fisher, chairwoman of the county Democrats.

Democrats hope that of all their candidates, former police Chief James Robey, unopposed in the primary, benefits most. He is the party's hope to reclaim the county executive's office against the winner of the Feaga-Schrader primary.

"Education is the crown jewel in Howard County's crown, and what they've done is tarnish that jewel," said Robey. "Apparently, the Republicans are satisfied with maintaining the status quo or just squeaking by."

Cook, a former school board chairwoman, is uncomfortable with being labeled, with other Republicans, unsupportive of education. On the school board, she fought against Republicans for more money and took shots at GOP officials such as Ecker.

"I truly went up against them. I mean, we've gone head-to-head before," Cook said. "Yes, I am a Republican. However, I am a Howard countian first."

Pub Date: 5/21/98

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