Robey targets GOP's numbers

He will face formidable Ehrlich ally in race to unseat incumbent District 13 senator


After 32 years of policing Howard County and two terms as county executive, Democrat James N. Robey wants to knock a Republican out of the Maryland Senate on his way to retirement.

But his target could prove formidable: state Sen. Sandra B. Schrader, a GOP moderate with close ties to the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and deep roots in Howard County District 13, where Robey has yet to take up residence.

Robey's announcement was the third major political event in the county since Friday, when County Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat, announced he will seek the county executive's job.

The next day, Councilman Christopher J. Merdon, a 34-year-old Ellicott City Republican, staged a formal announcement of his candidacy for county executive, complete with hundreds of applauding supporters, sign-wavers and a musical flourish at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post off Old Columbia Pike.

Merdon used that site to emphasize his efforts to help get land for a new elementary school being built on a combined site obtained from the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the YMCA nearby.

Robey used similar imagery, receiving an award for helping to revitalize Oakland Mills Village Center, which is in District 13.

In his unofficial campaign launch, the county executive signaled the tack he will take in his effort to unseat the first-term incumbent.

"I'm not going to say anything bad about Sandy; she's a well-liked person," said Robey. At the same time, he said, "my voice will be stronger" -- a theme echoed in the banner emblazoned at Monday's event: "It is time for a stronger voice and a better choice."

Schrader was in a less charitable mood after the event.

Robey, she charged, learned from the results of a poll he commissioned that he would not be able to defeat Republican state Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, who represents the western county's District 9, so "he decided to move into my district."

At this point, however, he hasn't moved his residence. "I'm not quite sure how he was able to announce." said Schrader, who noted that she has lived in the area for 19 years and has worked as an aide to former state Sen. Martin G. Madden, whom she succeeded in 2002.

Robey denies any connection between his political plans and a decision by his wife, Janet, and himself to sell their Ellicott City house and move to a condominium near Timbers of Troy golf course next March. His commitment is less to politics than to public service, he said.

The campaign promises to be a vigorous one. Schrader said she has $150,000 in campaign cash. Robey said he has $6,200, but plans to raise $200,000 -- more than he spent to get elected in 1998 -- for the effort.

In moving to oppose Schrader, Robey appears to be following his own advice to county Democrats at a Labor Day picnic this year when he spoke about Republican plans to expand their General Assembly base by targeting select Democrats.

"When are we going to get off our asses and start targeting some of them? You can't just play defense; we have to play offense," he told the crowd.

Robey also made clear Monday that there is no love lost between him and Ehrlich when he was asked his opinion of the governor.

"I've sort of been nonexistent as far as the governor's concerned," he said after a long pause, noting that he has been excluded several times from administration-sponsored events.

Victories by Robey and incumbent state Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, also a Democrat, would give Democrats control of the county's Senate delegation in the General Assembly -- and rob Ehrlich of a key supporter in Schrader. Democrats hold six of the eight House of Delegates seats from Howard.

Robey said his announcement was preliminary to a formal declaration in January. He said he once thought he would retire when he leaves office in December 2006, a month before his 66th birthday, but he changed his mind. "I was unhappy, miserable," he said, at the thought of leaving public service.

At his Oakland Mills announcement, Robey was endorsed by several African-American clergy members, including the Rev. John Wright of First Baptist Church of Guilford and the Rev. Robert A. Turner of St. John Baptist Church, plus Jenkins Odoms, Howard County NAACP chairman. Also supporting him were a clutch of elected Democrats -- though county Councilman David A. Rakes, the Democrat who represents the area, was absent.

Merdon's event included such supporters as county police Lt. Bellido DeLuna and retired Community Action Council Director Dorothy L. Moore. Joseph W. Rutter Jr., former county planning director, also endorsed Merdon.

In formally announcing his candidacy, Merdon called for higher starting pay for teachers and greater efforts to end crowded classrooms, and he said he would create a new director of education job if elected, in order to emphasize his commitment to county schools.

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