Opportunity running out for undiscovered Ecker

July 30, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Chuck Ecker's digging into breakfast at the Double T Diner, U.S. 40 and Rolling Road, where the conversation's convivial and the oatmeal sublime, when a name is inserted into the conversation Tuesday morning: Ellen Sauerbrey.

Ecker, the Howard County executive and largely undiscovered candidate for the Republican nomination for governor, tightens his grip on a defenseless paper napkin held in his thick fingers.

"Sauerbrey," he repeats softly. She's far ahead of him in the polls. "She tells everybody, 'If you want to know what Parris Glendening will do, look to the past,' " Ecker says. "Well, it's the same with Ellen. Look to the past.

"She was a legislator for 16 years. What did she do? Did she ever get a piece of meaningful legislation passed in 16 years? Today, she tells people, 'It's the Democrats. I'd introduce bills, and they'd kill 'em.' Well, isn't that what politics is, getting along with both sides?"

He produces numbers, charts, bills introduced by Sauerbrey in her years in the House of Delegates: Only 20 percent ever became law. In the House, the proportion of bills enacted, Ecker says, averages 28 percent.

"The reason is that she can't work with the Democrats," he says. "Because she comes from a right-wing agenda. So, what happens if she gets elected governor? She introduces right-wing bills and the Democrats kill 'em, and where are we for the next four years?"

What's interesting now is only partly the language coming from Ecker. He's an old-school guy, gentle, affable, given to courtly manners, and this language is uncharacteristically tough.

What's stronger, though, are his hands. They're murdering the paper napkin he's holding, unconsciously twisting it, shredding it. The notion is that it's not a substitute for Sauerbrey he's squeezing, it's his own reluctance to cut loose his emotions.

In his hands, you see the strength of the fellow Ecker used to be. He grew up on a small farm in Uniontown, Carroll County, when even Westminster was open country. He rose at 5 each morning to slop the hogs, milk the cows and kill an occasional chicken before going off to school. His father worked at a cement plant, and his mother ran the farm. Neither had a high school diploma, but they produced five children, four of whom graduated college.

Ecker became a science teacher and high school coach in three Maryland counties. He's got a rocklike jaw and the build of a linebacker. At 69, he still works out with a trainer a few times a week.

"Are you aware of the pain," he's asked now, "that you're inflicting on that napkin?"

He looks down, surprised at the carnage in his hands. The napkin's been left for dead. We'll let Freud draw his own conclusions. Or we'll leave it to Jill Homan, Ecker's campaign communications director, who's sitting beside him in the breakfast booth.

"He's making it easier to recycle," she says.

Or maybe he's expressing some of his frustrations with this campaign. For months, people around him have urged him to take off the gloves. A week ago, a poll showed that half of Maryland's voters are still unhappy with Ellen Sauerbrey's challenge, and her outlandish charges of massive voter fraud, following her election defeat four years ago.

Ecker's been reluctant to talk about it, partly because he's not a knocker and partly because he thinks it's bad business to rap his own party. Now, here's what he says.

"It was wrong. I was not involved, but I know it was wrong."

He means, Sauerbrey's claims of 50,000 fraudulent votes, which she "modified" to 14,000 votes, and her claim of 4,774 inmates voting, which she "modified" to 10 inmates, and her claim of "hundreds" of dead people miraculously voting, which she "modified" to "a handful" -- all claims that vanished completely when her case reached court.

"All those years I coached high school sports," Ecker says, "I knew that when the game was over, it was over. Maybe there was a bad call along the way, but the game was lost by us. You don't lose because of a referee."

Now the polls show Sauerbrey's about to get another shot at Glendening, who's leading challenger Eileen Rehrmann in the Democratic primary race. In head-to-head polls, though, Sauerbrey still trails Glendening. Ecker says he's baffled by the numbers.

"This guy [Glendening] has the lowest popularity numbers of any governor in the country," he says, noting well-circulated polls. "And yet Ellen's still trailing him. And she's been running, and criticizing him, for four years."

He tells campaign audiences that his experience as a county executive should be considered. After all, Howard County's going through a wonderful time.

"I've tried [running a government] and done it," he says. "Parris tried it and didn't do it. Ellen's never even tried."

But she's been running for governor for four years. And Ecker, putting down his shredded napkin and heading out the door, has barely a month left to stand in her way.

Pub Date: 7/30/98

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