According to Howard County's first female state senator, running for re-election is "a Maalox moment every day."
That's because Republican State Sen. Sandra B. Schrader, 52, is facing a re-election challenge from two-term Howard County Executive James N. Robey, 65, a Democrat in a district where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 14,000.
"I'm running as hard as I can. I love the job," is Schrader's oft-repeated mantra - but the worry is always there.
Although her seat is key to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich's hope of building GOP strength in the General Assembly, Schrader won with less than 1,000 votes last time. Now, she will have to survive a strong challenge from Robey, who worked his way up from patrolman to Howard County police chief before winning the executive's job in 1998 - over Schrader's husband, Dennis R. Schrader.
"I certainly, when the opportunity presents itself, point out what my accomplishments are," Robey said. "I had the ability and opportunity to do things that she hasn't."
The Senate race is the most hotly contested in District 13, the only one of Howard's three legislative districts wholly within county borders, covering North Laurel and east Columbia, and stretching from Fulton to Elkridge.
Robey is running as part of a team with three-term incumbents Del. Shane E. Pendergrass, 56, and Del. Frank S. Turner, 59, both of King's Contrivance. They're joined by two-term area County Councilman Guy Guzzone, 42, also of Kings Contrivance, who won out over incumbent Del. Neil F. Quinter in the September primary.
Opposing them are Republicans Mary Beth Tung, 47, of Clarksville, who narrowly lost to Quinter four years ago; and first-time candidates Loretta Gaffney, 50, of Glenelg and the Rev. Rick Bowers, 48, of Long Reach, a clergyman and chairman of Defend Maryland Marriage.
For Howard's legislative delegation, Schrader's seat could be pivotal; if Robey wins, it could give county Democrats full control of local bills. Democrats dominate the House delegation, 6-2, but they hold one of the three state Senate seats. The two groups must separately approve local bills.
Schrader is counting on her 20 years living in the district, her political balancing act and her engaging personality to again survive a tough challenge.
The Buffalo, N.Y., native spent a decade working in Annapolis as former State Sen. Martin G. Madden's aide before her own appointment to the seat when he resigned. She also helped her husband in his campaigns for a County Council seat in 1994 and county executive in 1998.
"I think I know the district pretty well," Schrader said.
She has had a perilous political history in the Senate seat. After her appointment to the seat to fill a vacancy, she survived a strong challenge four years ago from five-term Democratic county Councilman C. Vernon Gray. He lost by 792 votes.
Schrader said she has not hesitated to break with state GOP leadership on some issues, such as the plan by state Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan's plan last year to cut bus service to Howard County.
On other issues, she is firmly in line with established Republican positions.
"I think we've got to hold the line on taxes," she said, noting that although Howard is known as a wealthy county, "we have people living from paycheck to paycheck."
The Schrader--Robey campaign had remained fairly low-key until last week, when two glossy attack ads mailed on Robey's behalf set off a furor.
The ads were intended to highlight Schrader's votes against bills allowing sale of the "morning after pill" emergency contraceptive without a prescription. But instead they implied that Schrader somehow banned the sale of birth control pills in Howard County. She favored over-the counter sale of the contraceptive, but objected because the bills did not exclude minors.
Schrader rallied supporters in front of the county office building twice to denounce the ads, mailed out by the Maryland Democratic Senatorial Committee, as a gross distortion of her record on birth control.
Robey initially denied any involvement or knowledge of the ads and said he was unfamiliar with the committee. But later, he said he had been confused. He confirmed his membership in the committee, but maintained he knew nothing of the ads, though he did not repudiate them.
Schrader rejected his claims Wednesday.
"Last week, Jim Robey lied about my record. This week, he's lying about his involvement," she told supporters.
Schrader said Robey is no tougher a challenger than was Gray, especially since he just recently moved to a retirement condominium in the district from his longtime Ellicott City home.
Robey rejects the carpetbagger label. He was born and raised in Howard County, he points out, and patrolled the area covered by District 13 for decades as a police officer.