Republican voters make their choice for county executive Candidates for top job reflect contrasts in once-rural area

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.

Howard Republican voters made their party's choice for county executive yesterday between two councilmen who are conflicting symbols of the 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 boom of the 1980s.

The winner of the primary between Charles C. Feaga and Dennis R. Schrader will 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 appeared extremely low throughout the day, election officials said.

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. He feels voters appreciate that image.

"They feel like they can trust me and they know they can get a straight answer and I'm not going to beat around the bush," Feaga said.

Schrader, the hospital executive, positioned 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 earlier 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."

Schrader was optimistic that the managed-growth message would help carry him to victory in the primary.

"Obviously our research tells us that growth is a hot, hot issue. It moves people," Schrader said. "I've knocked on well over 3,600 doors now, and that's all I hear."

But 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 earlier 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."

To some degree, then, voters yesterday may have been choosing between contrasting governing styles rather than contrasting agendas. Feaga supporters praise their candidate's predictable, no-nonsense approach.

Schrader voters said they figured their candidate would be more responsive to the voters, refusing to stray too far from what the people want.

"He seems to be more out there [meeting with voters]," said Andrea Kolczynski, 37, of Elkridge, voting at the Elkridge Regional Library. "He represents us."

Pub Date: 9/16/98

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