Schrader tactics helped 'nice guy' win election


November 08, 1998|By Harold Jackson

IT'S TOUGH to lose an election. It's been 28 years (can that be true?) since I ran for student council president and lost. Ullman High was shut down before the next school year began, so I wouldn't have gotten to serve anyway. But the defeat still irritates.

My opponent was a good-looking athlete who was always nattily attired in the latest fashions that he acquired from the men's store where he worked part time. Me? I was just a bespectacled geek who could be summed up with the words "nice guy." And nice guys finish last, right?

Well, not if you're running for election when voters want to send politicians a message about meanness. Not if you're running against a candidate who doesn't recognize the mood of voters and starts talking nasty about his opponent. Not if you're Jim Robey.

Huge turnout

James N. Robey, the former police chief who Tuesday was elected Howard County's next executive, benefited greatly from the huge Democratic turnout nationwide.

But he also owes much of his victory to his Republican opponent's propensity to shoot himself in the foot. Dennis R. Schrader blew this election.

The freshman County Council member already had a reputation among local government workers as ruthless. They feared his election. He added to the bad vibes about him with his campaign in the Republican primary against fellow Councilman Charlie Feaga.

Some Republicans were upset that Mr. Schrader would run against Mr. Feaga. The three-term councilman and western Howard farmer was a party stalwart long before Mr. Schrader moved to the county 11 years ago.

Mr. Schrader compounded ill will toward him by accepting campaign contributions from developers while labeling Mr. Feaga "the developers' friend."

Mr. Schrader won the primary, but divided his base. The Republicans tried to put up a good front, but couldn't. Mr. Feaga never did campaign for Mr. Schrader.

The party's disarray became blatant when James R. "Pat" Patterson, a GOP insider and candidate for Orphans' Court, ran several newspaper ads that said his name had been left out of local Republican campaign literature because he supported Mr. Robey.

None of the infighting deterred Mr. Schrader from his negative campaign strategy. He put out position papers and held press conferences on the issues. But, not content to stress his strengths, he also lashed out at his opponent.

He suggested that Mr. Robey's 32 years on the police force, seven as chief, meant he would be a patsy for the police union in labor disputes. He said Mr. Robey's authorization of a controversial massage parlor sting in 1995, combined with Mr. Robey's insensitive remarks in a rape case six years ago, were indicative of a general lack of respect for women.

Mr. Robey quickly pointed out that, as chief, he was just as often the nemesis of the police union as he was its ally. And Judy Clancy of the Domestic Violence Center of Howard County said she had always found Mr. Robey to be "very interested and supportive."

Perhaps in a different year Mr. Schrader's unsuccessful attempt to define Mr. Robey for voters would have worked.

But one message from Tuesday's races across the nation is that voters are tired of that tactic. Candidates who gave compelling reasons to vote for them did better than those who only hammered at their opponents.

Be vigilant

Mr. Schrader obviously felt he had to distinguish himself from Mr. Robey in ways beyond their different party affiliations. The two never really differed greatly in what they said about guarding against overdevelopment, adequately funding schools and improving aging infrastructure.

But instead of placing more emphasis on his dynamism, business background, understanding of regional issues, affinity with young suburban families who have supplanted Howard's rural scions, Mr. Schrader chose to attack Mr. Robey's record as police chief. Voters didn't want to hear it.

I don't think they will be disappointed with Mr. Robey. But he has a lot to learn during a critical period in county government when Howard will have not only a new executive but three new County Council members. He will also have to learn quickly.

All three newly elected council members -- Democrat Guy Guzzone and Republicans Christopher J. Merdon and Allan H. Kittleman Jr. -- ran on platforms that promised to reassess the county's development policies. They may not be "anti-development," but they are concerned about the pace of construction.

In the coming months, Mr. Robey is expected to work with the council to determine whether the county's general development plan and adequate public facilities law should be changed.

Voters have said they trust Mr. Robey to lead the discussion that will determine how much growth occurs in the next decade.

Despite the tidal wave of Democratic voters, that trust might have been placed in Mr. Schrader, had he campaigned differently. He must have bought into that old saying about nice guys finishing last. Not in the election of 1998.

Harold Jackson writes editorials about Howard County for The Sun.

Pub Date: 11/08/98

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