When strengths are drawbacks Ideal: Charles I. Ecker might be what voters clamor for. So why don't more of them support him for governor?

August 10, 1998|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

CRISFIELD -- In this remote corner of Maryland, Charles I. Ecker found a likely supporter -- Frank Johnson, a 53-year-old businessman, co-owner of a crab processing plant. And a Republican.

In 2 1/2 hours of campaigning here last week, he was the only Republican Ecker met.

A luncheon in Ecker's honor drew three voters. All were Democrats. So were the owner and clerk at a marine hardware store where Ecker stopped to chat. None can vote for him in Maryland's GOP primary for governor.

That kind of day would discourage most politicians. Many of Ecker's longtime supporters -- looking at rival Ellen R. Sauerbrey's 60-point lead in the polls -- have urged him to drop out of the race.

But Ecker, the two-term Howard County executive, says he is undaunted. With five weeks to go until the Sept. 15 primary, he is sharpening his message -- and enjoying what, at age 69, is probably his last run for office.

"Sure I think I can win," he said as he wound up Thursday's stop in Crisfield, a crabbing and seafood capital on the Chesapeake Bay.

"She's a legislator, spent 16 years voting on legislation, never had the responsibility for implementing it," Ecker said of Sauerbrey. "If someone were to hire someone to run their company, they would not pick someone with no experience."

Credentials are the heart of Ecker's candidacy. He spent decades as a teacher and administrator in school systems, including Howard's, perhaps the best in the state. He is nearing the end of eight years as county executive, in which he earned high marks for fiscal management. Howard has stable tax rates, a triple-A bond rating and strong job growth.

Even many of those who dismiss his chances of winning the election say he would make a good governor.

Yet his unassuming, bipartisan style -- the very things his supporters admire -- has hurt his campaign, many political observers say.

Thursday morning, Ecker left Ocean City -- where tens of thousands of Maryland voters lined the beach and boardwalk -- to drive an hour to Somerset County, home to less than one half of 1 percent of the state's registered Republicans.

The voters Ecker met in Crisfield called him personable, honest, well-meaning, moderate and decidedly unflashy. He came across as the kind of politician that voters often claim they want to elect.

Ecker also has potentially appealing positions on a wide range of issues, promising to train teachers better, recruit new businesses, streamline government, push ethical reforms. He is firmly against allowing slot machines at racetracks. Sauerbrey has left the door open to them.

"We've got to change the education of the public schools, where it's more important for the kids to feel good about themselves than to think and learn," Ecker said.

His message played well with Johnson, the Crisfield businessman. He voted for Sauerbrey in 1994 but was turned off by her legal challenge to the election after she narrowly lost to Gov. Parris N. Glendening. He doesn't want a rematch.

Of Ecker, Johnson said, "He's down to earth. He certainly has enough experience."

Very respectful

Later in the morning, Ecker walked into a second crab plant, run by Pat Reese, a 58-year-old Democrat who was so smitten by Ecker he wrote a check to the campaign by the end of the day.

But as Ecker followed Reese, listening to his explanation of the plant's operations, he walked past six workers, barely saying a word as they slowly folded soft-shell crabs into clear plastic sheets.

Two of the workers later told a reporter they were Republicans. Ecker never introduced himself.

"It's not his nature," campaign press secretary Jill Homan said later. "He sees handing out literature and just walking up to people as somewhat obtrusive. He's very respectful of people."

The campaign gave a similar explanation when it decided against handing out brochures at the Bay Bridge walk this spring. Sauerbrey plastered the event with fliers and bumper stickers. Ecker put out a statement saying he would refrain out of respect for the environment.

Lead in name recognition

Many say Ecker has not adjusted well to state politics. Even if he had, Sauerbrey began the campaign with an enormous lead in name recognition, money and support among the conservative activists who typically dominate GOP primaries.

"He knew people in Howard County," said Carol Arscott, a GOP consultant who helped recruit Ecker to the county executive race in 1990. "Chuck is comfortable with people he knows, and not very comfortable with people he doesn't know."

Back in Ocean City Thursday night, Ecker joined a group of local officials from across the state who were gathered for a conference. He mingled easily and took to the dance floor with friends -- some half his age -- to do the electric slide.

The next day went better for Ecker. He still skipped the Ocean City boardwalk and beach, but nephew Beach Patrol Capt. Butch Arbin took him for a tour of town buildings, making a point to introduce his uncle to almost every person they came across -- including some Republicans.

In the 911 dispatch center, Ecker hit it off with dispatcher Jack Coxe, a 44-year-old blind man who uses a hand-held light sensor to take calls. Braille notes help him route the information to the appropriate authorities.

Ecker didn't talk much about issues, but he did pet Coxe's guide dog and urged Coxe to demonstrate his call-taking technique for a reporter trailing a few steps behind.

Coxe, a Republican, said he might vote for Ecker: "It's not outside of the realm of possibility. I liked him."

Pub Date: 8/10/98

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