Growth tangles race for executive Rhetoric suggests sharper divisions than record supports

September 06, 1998|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

The scene at the Clarksville home of wealthy Republican businessman J. P. Bolduc, host of a lavish fund-raiser for Charles C. Feaga last June, could have served equally well as an advertisement for Feaga or ammunition for his Republican primary opponent in the county executive's race, fellow Councilman Dennis R. Schrader.

"There are those that will tell you that growth is a problem," said Bolduc, a development financier, as guests sampled citrus marinated quail eggs, smoked oriental scallops, herb-encrusted turkey and curry-roasted garlic shrimp. "Charlie will tell you that growth represents opportunity."

With new residential communities on the way in southern Howard and scattered controversial developments around the county, growth has been the prevailing undercurrent in the county executive's race. It has swayed some of the county's residential developers to Feaga, a 65-year-old property-rights advocate whose family farm is being developed into homes, and driven "slow-growthers" to Schrader, a 45-year-old hospital executive who has criticized the pace of residential building.

But even though many in the Schrader and Feaga camps see stark differences between the two candidates on growth, the reality is more complex than the rhetoric. As they approach the Sept. 15 primary, Feaga may be less the favorite of developers than he appears, and Schrader may be more friendly to them than some voters realize.

Schrader's latest television campaign advertisement, for example, boasts that he knows how to say "no" to developers, and labels Feaga as "the developers' friend." But what the ad doesn't boast is that nearly half its cost was paid for with the largess of the development community, a wide-ranging group of contributors who have given more generously to Schrader than to Feaga.

Close to $80,000 of Schrader's nearly $173,000 amassed by the end of August -- or more than 45 percent-- came from more than 100 developers, architects, engineers, contractors, suppliers, zoning attorneys and others who profit from development, including their close family members, according to a review of campaign reports and interviews with the candidate.

Returning contributions

Yesterday, Schrader decided to return perhaps a quarter of the development community's contributions, money he had raised from contractors who have done business with him in his role as vice president of the University of Maryland Medical System. Some ethicists and influential state legislators had suggested the appearance of a conflict of interest, though Schrader said yesterday he did nothing wrong and is returning the contributions to protect the reputation of the medical system.

By comparison, about 40 percent of Feaga's nearly $113,000 in contributions came from the development community.

"Charlie admits to taking money from businesses, has never apologized for it," said Feaga's treasurer, Councilman Darrel E. Drown. "Dennis is saying these businesses are bad and yet he is taking their money. He wants it both ways."

Schrader responds that he's not saying developers are bad, and he didn't intend for his ad to come off as anti-developer, even if it does exclaim in red letters under his picture, "No! to developers." In interviews, he delivers a more balanced message than his 30-second attack ad conveys, one that slow-growthers in the county may not find quite as appealing.

"The message is not that we're against developers. The message is that we need an independent approach to managing growth looking at the economics of growth," Schrader said. "It's not saying that development is good or bad or that developers are good or bad."

Contributors to Schrader don't seem bothered by his ad, either. In interviews over the past week, many of Schrader's biggest benefactors said they view the candidate as pro-development.

"Dennis is not anti-growth. Misunderstanding. Big misunderstanding," said Ron Brasher, a Columbia architect who designed the county's Gateway building and numerous private projects and has contributed $866, including in-kind donations, to Schrader's campaign. "He is pro-growth. I had a long talk with him before I supported him."

Developer contributions to candidates are a staple of suburban politics, where a never-ending stream of zoning issues and permit applications comes before county governments. The county executive is instrumental in crafting the county's plan for growth, and the executive's staff can act as a crucial gatekeeper for developers' proposed zoning changes and site plans.

This year, two Republican candidates for County Council, Allan Kittleman of western Howard and Christopher J. Merdon of Ellicott City, have sworn off contributions from developers and their attorneys, saying they don't want voters to think that a builder's money will influence their votes on the council, which also sits as the Zoning Board.

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