Schrader winner over Feaga Hospital official takes 52% of GOP vote in executive's race

He'll face Robey in Nov.

Candidates for top job reflect contrasts in once-rural Howard

Primary 1998

September 16, 1998|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Edward Lee, Jill Hudson Neal, Erika D. Peterman, Jamal E. Watson and Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this article.

Dennis R. Schrader beat fellow Councilman Charles C. Feaga for the Republican nomination for county executive last night, taking 52 percent of the vote in a hotly contested primary where growth was the dominant issue.

Schrader won the right to face Democrat James N. Robey, the former police chief, in a November election to decide who succeeds Republican Charles I. Ecker in the county's highest office. The county executive has sweeping powers over setting the budget, planning growth and running the day-to-day government of nearly a quarter-million residents.

Despite the executive's primary and several other contested County Council and General Assembly primaries, though, county voter turnout was extremely low at less than 30 percent, election officials said.

Voters could scarcely have had more divergent choices for the Republican nomination for executive, both personally and politically. The race featured two candidates who are conflicting symbols of this once-rural suburban county -- a 65-year-old native who grew up on a West Friendship farm and a 45-year-old hospital executive who moved to Columbia during the development boom of the 1980s.

The farmer, Feaga, is a traditional conservative who advocates trimming debt over cutting taxes and stands up for developers' property rights even when those views may be unpopular.

He says he doesn't believe in polling or negative advertising, though he was savvy enough to capitalize on that old-fashioned image, labeling himself "not your ordinary politician" in television commercials and mailings.

Schrader, the hospital executive, won most likely by positioning himself as more moderate on growth and spending issues, in part with the aid of polls and focus groups. In the past year, he set himself apart from Feaga by pushing for the elimination of a $125-per-household trash fee -- which he had voted to institute -- and casting some high-profile votes against developers.

His highest-profile vote came this year, when he made a failed bid to delay the Rouse Co.'s plans for a Columbia-style village in North Laurel, a project Feaga supported. For the past few weeks Schrader has run a television spot touting his vote on the Rouse proposal and attacking Feaga as "the developers' friend."

Feaga was gracious in defeat last night, personally visiting Schrader to congratulate him. He pledged to support the Republican Party but refused to endorse Schrader over the Democrat Robey in the general election.

"I'll be looking at the candidates and at issues to see where each stands," Feaga said. "We have to wait and see. They have to answer some very tough questions."

Slow-grow advocates have long criticized Feaga, but he still managed to win three consecutive terms on the County Council. Now, Schrader's calculated attack on growth has helped end Feaga's political career. Many Schrader voters interviewed yesterday noted the candidate's stance on growth as an important factor in making their choice, just as Schrader expected.

"The voters said they want us to manage growth," Schrader said in celebrating his victory last night. "That's going to mean making some tough decisions, but we can't afford to go back to the failed government of the 1980s when growth was out of control."

The two candidates' differences on issues are not quite as stark as they might have seemed at times in the campaign.

For example, Schrader, who boasts of his ability to say "no" to developers, accepted close to $80,000 in campaign contributions from the development community -- almost half the $172,600 he raised by the end of last month. He decided this month to return roughly a quarter of those development contributions after being criticized for accepting donations from contractors he does business with in his job at the University of Maryland Medical System.

By comparison, roughly 40 percent of Feaga's $113,500 came from the development community, a wide-ranging category that includes builders, architects, engineers, construction managers, others who profit directly from development and their family members. Supporters of Feaga, who has sold much of his family farm to developers, say Schrader shouldn't impugn developers while taking their money.

Schrader, meanwhile, doesn't sound so "anti-developer" in person as his television commercial might make him sound. He talks enthusiastically about encouraging commercial development, and he says being able to say "no" to developers doesn't mean saying "no" all the time, or even half the time. Just sometimes.

Some Schrader voters, though, said they weren't worried their candidate would bow to developers once in office even if developers helped finance his campaign.

"I would think he's going to take money wherever he can get it from," said Robert Fiscus, 68, a retired Army veteran from Columbia. "If you wanted to give me $100,000 for my campaign, I'd thank you."

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