Old vs. new in the race for Howard executive Robey-Schrader duel gets nasty in final days

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

Howard County executive candidate Dennis R. Schrader is walking, appropriately enough, two steps behind gubernatorial contender Ellen R. Sauerbrey on the campaign trail when the question is posed to him: If he wins two terms as executive, would he seek higher office?

The 45-year-old Republican councilman shakes his head, smiles and declares, "No comment, no comment, no comment, no comment," and then with a laugh, "no comment." For a man who told his future wife on their first date that he wanted to be president of the United States someday, it's a coy response.

His Democratic opponent, retired Police Chief James N. Robey, answers the same question like a man who has known little else besides Howard County in his 57 years. "Absolutely not."

The Howard County executive race has been a duel of archetypes in this fast-growing county. Schrader represents new Howard, an upwardly mobile suburban moderate who moved to Columbia in 1987, long after the more liberal disciples of James W. Rouse settled there. Robey is seen by some as old Howard, born and raised there before Columbia existed, and a familiar face from his career as a police officer, including seven years as chief.

In a race that will help decide how much Howard citizens are taxed, how much the county will spend on its highly regarded schools and how to plan the county's next decade of growth, it is unclear which archetype -- the new Republican or the old Democrat -- will claim victory.

After Columbia's early boom in the 1970s, the county has steadily grown more prosperous and conservative. Today, the GOP controls the government, and a new generation of Republican candidates is vying for office. These Republicans, most of whom moved to the county in the past 15 years, say they have had enough of the population growth that helped bring their party to power. They say they will work to increase commercial development, slow residential growth, cut taxes and pour more money into communities.

Democrats -- with three Republican council members and GOP County Executive Charles I. Ecker leaving office -- see a rare opportunity to reverse the flow of suburban Republicanism. They have made a few of the same promises the Republicans have, but they have pushed traditional liberal causes, such as increased school spending and more affordable housing for the county's working class, while making no pledges to cut taxes.

The county executive candidates have self-consciously projected their contrasting images to sell their platforms. Schrader has taken pride in his modern campaign, with its poll-tested message and corporate fund-raising network, as a reflection of his ability to lead Howard into the big time. He plans to compete regionally to recruit business and investment.

Robey's deliberately folksy and grass-roots campaign -- with its $5 pancake breakfasts, country hayrides and cadre of county workers -- reflects his populist rhetoric about improving the lot of public employees and making housing more affordable.

But in recent weeks, the candidates have played on each other's images, and the duel of archetypes has become a nasty clash of personalities.

Schrader, an engineer and a vice president at the University of Maryland Medical System, has tried to portray Robey as an unsophisticated good ol' boy. He called Robey a "captive" of public employee unions, then said Robey "doesn't understand" complicated issues such as growth, and finally criticized his treatment of women.

Angered, Robey has responded that his opponent is so consumed by ambition he will say anything to win. He calls Schrader a climber more focused on his political future than the future of the county.

"I'll be a full-time county executive," Robey says. "Not a part-time county executive and part-time candidate for the governor's office, or senator or whatever he decides to go for."

Schrader's rapid rise since moving to Howard County in 1987 has rankled a few in his party. He won a County Council seat in 1994 and then took on a well-liked GOP elder, Charles C. Feaga, for the Republican nomination for executive this year. He narrowly defeated Feaga in part by attacking him as "the developers' friend."

Like Robey, some Feaga supporters charge that Schrader cares about getting elected, not serving the public. The Republican sheriff is backing Robey, and several other prominent Republican officials, including Feaga, have refused to endorse Schrader. Sixty-five Republicans signed on as "Republicans for Robey" in newspaper advertisements. And it's hard to tell that Ecker is supporting Schrader.

"The way he's attacked what I've done for the last eight years, I'm not sure he wants me very public [with my support]," Ecker says wryly. "Winning, to me, is not that important. I want to win, but to attack people is not my way of doing things."

Schrader has largely shrugged off such talk. He criticizes Robey for not being ambitious enough, once again conjuring the image of the un-sophisticate.

"Jim just can't compete with my qualifications," Schrader says.

Pub Date: 11/01/98

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