Democratic county executive candidate James N. Robey held his first fund-raiser last night, and some observers said it was just about time for the former police chief to kick his low-key campaign into high gear.
Robey, who launched his first bid for elected office in January, has run something of a stealth campaign until now. He has quietly met with community groups and raised little cash -- roughly $30,000 after last night -- while grabbing no headlines.
"I would like to see a higher profile, and I think it's going to start [now]," said Ann Balcerzak, an attorney and member of the Columbia Democratic Club.
Political consultants and activists are wondering whether the novice politician erred by not making himself more visible before now. He was conspicuously absent during the weeks-long battle over education funding, when other political candidates were making statements or, as members of the council, making policy.
When the county's Democratic candidates and elected officials gathered at school headquarters for a news conference last month to call for more education funding, Robey wasn't there, though as some Republicans have wryly noted, at least someone was there wearing his campaign button. Then, Robey didn't attend a council public hearing on the schools budget. As council members mulled their options in the ensuing weeks, Robey issued no proposals, no speeches, not even a news release.
"It was the most important public policy matter for the county over that three-week period and he was nowhere to be found," said Carol Arscott, a GOP consultant who is advising Republican Councilman Dennis R. Schrader in the county executive race. "You can either engage in that as a candidate for county executive or not, but if you're not going to, I think you have some explaining to do."
Robey says he decided to stay out of the education battle, even though he could have made a name for himself on a popular issue outside his sphere of public safety. Meanwhile, both Republican candidates for executive, Schrader and Charles C. Feaga, are natural lightning rods for publicity as key members of the County Council.
"Sure, I missed an opportunity," Robey said yesterday. "But I thought this issue they were dealing with transcended politics in this county, and I didn't want to throw politics in front of the council and have them react unfavorably to my support."
Democrats willing to speak publicly on the issue, including Balcerzak and county party Chairwoman Carole Fisher, said they respect Robey for that decision.
"I admire his restraint," Balcerzak said.
Political and public relations consultant Roger Caplan said Robey did the right thing.
"This was an issue that was definitely between the current office holders," Caplan said. "I don't think it was time to comment. He could have, but I believe that would have been irresponsible."
Now, Robey says he will speak out loudly on the education issue. He makes clear that he agrees with the county's other Democrats on all points: He's against the small tax cut approved by the Republican council majority, and he says the council didn't go far enough by adding $3.5 million to County Executive Charles I. Ecker's proposed schools budget.
"Another million or million-and-a-half dollars would have been a reasonable compromise," said Robey, who is also writing a letter to local newspapers about the issue. "Does it make any sense to cut the average taxpayer's taxes by $51 a year and at the same time tell the Board of Education, 'Well, maybe it's not a bad idea to raise the fees for participation in athletics by $50 or $100 a year?' "
By not speaking out more before the decisions were being made on the education issue, Robey surely missed his best chance so far to make headlines as a politician. But Republicans and Democrats alike say Robey has such high name recognition as the former police chief that he could afford to wait until now to generate campaign buzz and, with that, campaign cash.
"Jim comes to the table halfway there," said Caplan, who has worked for Democrats and Republicans but is advising a few GOP candidates this year. "Does he need more money? Absolutely."
Political experts say a candidate needs at least $200,000 to run a legitimate race for county executive. Schrader is expected to have little difficulty raising that much, and Feaga, who also has a well-established fund-raising network after 12 years on the council, hopes to have more than $100,000 by mid-July.
Robey won't say how much he intends to raise, just "as much as I need to win," he said. Last night's fund-raiser was his first serious bid to raise money, with more than 100 people paying $125 (or $200 a couple) to attend.
He says he plans four to six more fund-raisers in the next few months.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Eileen M. Rehrmann and nearly every Democratic elected official and candidate for major office in the county were in attendance.
Robey walked the room easily, smiling and shaking hands, looking like a candidate. He says he will look even more like a candidate in the summer and fall.
"You could start too soon and burn out too soon," Robey said yesterday. "In the coming weeks, coming days, you're going to see a dramatic change in the way the campaign is run. We're going to be there, we're going to be noisy."
Pub Date: 5/28/98