Robey launches political TV ads Fellow Democrats say his novice campaign approach is cautious

September 01, 1998|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

The way some of his fellow Democrats have been talking in this county, you'd think former police Chief James N. Robey is approaching politics about as cautiously as he would approach an armed suspect. Now he's making his first aggressive campaign pitch -- while still playing the novice politician.

With an outsider's slogan -- "He may be new to politics, but not to public service" -- the Howard County executive candidate chats interview-style about education, managing growth and his career on the police force in three new television advertisements.

"I became a police officer to make a difference in people's lives," Robey says in one ad. "When I retired as chief, I knew there was still work to be done, ways that I could help."

The ads put Robey's face in front of voters two weeks before the Republican primary, reminding voters that they have a Democratic choice in this year's election.

GOP candidates Dennis R. Schrader and Charles C. Feaga, both councilmen, have been airing their television ads, with Schrader recently debuting a spot attacking Feaga as "the developers' friend." Viewers may now see as many as three local political advertisements each evening on major cable channels such as CNN and ESPN.

Robey, who faces no primary opposition, says his ads avoid the standard political fare, like a candidate wearing a hard hat at a construction site or letting someone else speak about his credentials. He also takes a poke at those people, including some in his own party, who criticized his low-profile campaign as a mark of political inexperience: "They're right when they say I'm new to politics, but what's wrong with that?"

But local political observers said Robey's ads are, well, standard political fare. They portray a candidate introducing himself as an outsider, while crafting soothing-yet-nebulous sound bites on key issues.

"[They're] boilerplate, sort of stamped out, cookie-cutter ads," says Robert S. Ardinger, adjunct professor of political science at Howard Community College. "I would be hard-pressed to separate what he says with what the other candidates say."

For now, Robey doesn't plan to separate himself any further from the other candidates, at least on television. He said yesterday these three ads will be the only ones he airs in his campaign, sharing well over 900 spots on five channels before the general election.

In person, with more than 30 seconds to talk, Robey distinguishes himself a bit more from the Republican candidates. He says he would like to tighten a county growth ordinance to better ensure that roads and schools keep pace with new development. And he says the Republicans erred by passing a small cut in the county income tax and not giving more money to schools.

But Ardinger and another Howard Community College professor, Larry Madaras, say Robey should do more publicly to define his differences from the other candidates -- particularly if Schrader, the more moderate GOP contender, wins the primary.

"I think Robey and Schrader sound fairly similar in the sense they're trying to position themselves in the middle of the spectrum," said Madaras, a history professor who also teaches government. "Robey's got to be careful in that there's a fair number of liberal Democrats that might tilt the balance in this election. If voters don't think there's much of a difference between them, [liberal] turnout might not be as high."

Pub Date: 9/01/98

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