While Howard County Republicans concentrate on finding a successor for state Sen. Martin G. Madden, who is to resign Jan. 7, Democrats are gearing up to capture the seat in next year's elections.
No clear front-runner for appointment to Madden's seat has emerged yet.
Five-term County Councilman C. Vernon Gray, a Democrat, held a $50-a-ticket party Thursday night, ostensibly to celebrate his 20-year council career - but also to prepare for a likely 2002 state Senate campaign.
"Retirement is not in my vocabulary. The beginnings of another direction will be known soon," Gray told a crowd of several hundred at Laurel Park racetrack's Carriage Room.
"That's [state Senate] what I'm mostly considering," Gray said before the event, which included food, music, gambling with play money, virtual horse races, and a video-musical tribute to Gray's career. "I'll make a decision sometime in the spring."
Meanwhile, members of both political parties are wondering if and when the rumored Bush administration appointment of Howard's other Republican senator, Christopher J. McCabe, will leave another vacancy to fill.
McCabe, who is thought to be a candidate for a job in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, refused to comment Friday. Bill Pierce, a department spokesman, also declined to comment.
Republicans are intent on appointing someone to Madden's seat who wants to run for a full term next year, regardless of what redistricting does to the 13th District boundary lines. A meeting is scheduled Oct. 29 at the Savage Library to discuss the situation in the district, which covers east Columbia and the southeastern part of the county, including Fulton, Savage and North Laurel, Jessup and a slice of Elkridge.
"The most important thing in my mind is finding someone who can hold the seat," said county GOP Chairman Louis M. Pope, a real estate agent who is one of three top prospects for the seat.
The other two are former County Councilman Dennis R. Schrader, the Republican nominee for county executive in 1998, and his wife, Sandra, who is Madden's longtime legislative aide. Also seeking the seat are former Del. John S. Morgan and Long Reach resident Bob Adams.
Dennis Schrader said he and his wife haven't yet decided what to do, but are reluctant to serve for two reasons.
"For me, it's a significant dilemma," he said, explaining that he is deeply involved in a $175 million construction project at University of Maryland Medical Center, where he works. His wife is focused on their daughter, who is a sophomore in high school, he said.
But Howard's Democrats believe the interest in a replacement for Madden is just a preliminary - and temporary - focus.
"Whomever serves, I don't anticipate them serving more than a year because it's going to be an overwhelmingly Democratic district. The key here is, you won't have someone with a long [political] record," said Del. Frank S. Turner, a 13th District Democrat who lives in east Columbia.
At last year's election, the 13th District had 32,326 registered Democrats in Howard and Prince George's counties, compared with 18,602 Republicans. But in Howard County, Republican registrations are up 47 percent since 1990, while Democratic registrations increased 39 percent.
The Senate seat is important in Howard, giving the party that wins it more control over local legislation. Now, with two Republicans in Howard's three Senate seats, the GOP can virtually veto local bills, which must win separate approval from county delegates and senators.
That was clearly illustrated last year, when a bill that would have enlarged the school board while reducing members' terms from six to four years was approved by county delegates, 7-1. It failed, though, when the two Republican senators voted against it.
Madden announced last month that he is leaving politics to concentrate on his private insurance business. His departure a year before the next election would give the GOP time to choose a replacement who would run next year as an incumbent with one General Assembly session under his or her belt.
But Republicans said they are optimistic that because the big Baltimore and Washington area subdivisions are usually the main focus of redistricting, Howard's situation may not change all that much.
"It's a very competitive district. I've always done well in Elkridge, Savage, North Laurel, even in Kings Contrivance and Long Reach," Madden said. "We've always been able to do very well there."
Madden won the seat in 1998 with 57 percent of the vote.
Pope also noted Madden's success as a moderate Republican in Howard County. Redistricting might make the 13th "slightly more Democrat than it is now. But I also feel there are far more Republicans in Howard than there were 10 years ago. The Republican with the right message will win," Pope said.