Robey elected as executive Former police chief defeats Schrader to lead Howard

State's attorney race tight

Democrat promises to focus 'on needs of the people'

Election 1998

November 04, 1998|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Edward Lee, Alice Lukens, Jill Hudson Neal, Erika Niedowski and Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this article.

Democrat James N. Robey defeated Republican County Councilman Dennis R. Schrader in the Howard County executive's race, leading an unexpected Democratic surge that gave the party control of the county executive's office and the County Council for the first time since 1990.

Republican incumbent State's Attorney Marna L. McLendon was also in trouble, narrowly trailing challenger Timothy J. McCrone with absentee ballots left to be counted.

Robey, the 57-year-old former police chief, had more than 55 percent of the vote with 85 of 87 precincts reporting, faring better than either side expected in nearly every part of the county, including conservative strongholds such as Ellicott City and western Howard. Far outspent by Schrader, Robey attributed his victory to a strong volunteer effort by his campaign, which was heavily stocked with county employees.

He will assume the county's top job next month, when he hopes to begin delivering on promises to increase pay for police officers and boost education spending, even if it means raising taxes.

"We will focus on the needs of the people," Robey said last night at the Democratic Party celebration at Kahler Hall in Columbia. "We'll work on issues of growth and development, education and making Howard County residents [safer]."

Robey's victory, combined with the election of three Democrats to the five-member County Council, dramatically reverses a 12-year-old trend of Republicans gaining ground in local elections. Republicans first won a seat on the County Council in 1986, won the executive's office in 1990 and captured a 3-2 majority on the council in 1994 -- despite a Democratic edge in voter registration.

Some stunned Republicans said last night that high Democratic turnout and a surprisingly strong statewide and national showing for Democrats helped sway the local races.

"The Democratic win is really a top-down thing, and it's happening nationwide," said Republican Councilman Darrel E. Drown, who did not seek re-election. "People are really upset with Republicans, so it looks like we're going to be in the minority again."

In an affluent county that takes pride in its high-rated school system and low crime rate, the election may have been in part a referendum on whether a county once dominated by liberal Columbia has moved permanently into the age of fiscally conservative, suburban Republicanism.

Voters in the executive's race rejected a Republican who pledged to cut the trash fee and reduce the cost of government in favor of a Democrat who ran largely on a populist message of improving the lot of county employees, making housing more affordable for blue-collar workers, and including the public when shaping policy on growth.

It also was a vote for old Howard in Robey, born and raised in the county before Columbia existed, over a symbol of new Howard in 45-year-old Schrader, a moderate, upwardly mobile Republican

who moved to Columbia in 1987.

Robey succeeds two-term Executive Charles I. Ecker, a fiscally cautious Republican who steered the county through tough economic times by making sometimes painful budget cuts and raising the property tax.

Eight years later, Schrader won his Republican primary by decrying how poorly residential growth has been managed, painting his opponent, Charles C. Feaga, as "the developers' friend," and appeared well-positioned for the general election. In the fall campaign, Schrader devoted more energy to portraying himself as the better qualified candidate on a range of issues vs. a "good ol' boy" in Robey, and criticized Robey's treatment of women and of crime victims during his seven years as police chief.

Robey portrayed Schrader as a politician's politician who doesn't care as much about the people as he does about getting elected. He maintained that he was running a positive campaign about increasing commitment to education and public safety, even as he lashed back in response to Schrader's attacks. In his buoyant acceptance speech last night, Robey poked fun at Schrader's criticisms.

"I hope you all realize you're looking at a back-slapping, beer-drinking, unsophisticated good ol' boy," Robey said in a buoyant acceptance speech last night at Kahler Hall. "And to all you women that I've been insensitive to, I sincerely apologize."

Schrader came to congratulate Robey about 10: 30 p.m. and TTC then quietly slipped out of Kahler Hall.

Robey won despite spending less than Schrader. Through Oct. 18, the latest date campaign finance reports were available, Schrader had raised nearly $240,000, almost three times the amount Robey had raised.

Some of the differences in the two candidates were discernible in those fund-raising reports. Schrader's fund-raising network was dominated by business interests that work in the county, while Robey received substantial financial support from county employees who stand to benefit from his victory.

Through Oct. 18, more than $100,000 of Schrader's money came from the development industry and businesses that have bid for county contracts. Robey had raised just over $80,000, about a third of which came from public safety employee unions, county workers and their close relatives.

The bulk of Robey's employee support came from the police and fire departments, which became a central issue in the campaign.

Schrader called Robey a "captive" of the unions, saying the former police chief may have made expensive promises in exchange for their support.

Robey said the county doesn't pay enough to recruit and retain qualified police officers, and he accused Schrader of trivializing the problem.

Pub Date: 11/04/98

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