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  • Maryland Elections '98

  •   In Governor's Race, Ecker Is a Nice Guy Who Says He Won't Finish Last

    By Fern Shen
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Monday, September 8, 1997; Page B01

    The folks sitting on their porches watching the parade wind through New Windsor waved at Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker, and the 68-year-old white-haired candidate for the Maryland Republican gubernatorial nomination waved back.

    A small "Ecker for Governor" sign was taped to the driver's side door of his pea green '72 Chevy convertible as he steered it along the parade route through the small Carroll County town.

    "Chuck, do you have a sign on this side of the car?" asked his uncle Ike Sayler, whacking the passenger-side door and glancing at all the potential voters lining the other side of the street.

    "Naw, Ike, I couldn't get the tape to stick on that side," Ecker said, grinning, as his uncle shook his head.

    That midsummer scene about sizes up the Ecker campaign so far: amiable, low-key and, according to most political observers, doomed unless some political lightning strikes his Republican primary opponent, Ellen R. Sauerbrey.

    Poll results show that Ecker, who has not formally announced his candidacy, is 45 points behind the hard-line, hard-driving Sauerbrey, who shocked the Democrat-dominated state in the 1994 governor's race by nearly beating Parris N. Glendening.

    But Ecker says those numbers don't scare him. He notes that he pulled off his own surprise in 1990, when, as a little-known former county school official drafted by the local GOP to change parties and enter politics, he trounced the incumbent Democratic county executive, Elizabeth M. Bobo.

    "The experts said then that I didn't have a chance, and they were wrong. I think they're wrong again," Ecker said recently in an interview in his office in the county government building in Ellicott City.

    Ecker, a pro-business moderate who supports abortion rights and gun control, said he hopes that the 1994 GOP surge that carried many far-right Republicans into office has subsided. But he acknowledged that his centrist politics might hurt his chances of winning the nomination, since primaries tend to attract the more hard-line party activists.

    "I think there are more moderates [than conservatives] in the Republican Party," he said. "We just hope they vote in the primary."

    Recent poll results are not encouraging for Ecker. Asked whom they would vote for in a Republican primary, 61 percent said Sauerbrey, 16 percent said Ecker and 23 percent were undecided, according to the survey conducted by Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research of Columbia in mid-July. Ecker puts the best spin he can on the numbers.

    "That's kind of low for her, considering how hard she's been working," he said, "and pretty good for me, considering I haven't really gotten in full swing yet."

    Indeed, since he let his interest in the GOP nomination be known in the spring, Ecker has been showing up here and there -- at Lincoln Day dinners, local Republican committee meetings, a bull roast in Anne Arundel County. But he has not hired a field director for his campaign and has raised only about $25,000.

    Sauerbrey, meanwhile, has been a whirling dervish of activity, having campaigned full time pretty much for the last six years. She has raised nearly $600,000 so far and has brought in marquee Republicans such as Steve Forbes and Phil Gramm. Jack Kemp is expected at a Montgomery County reception for her later this month.

    "If I were Chuck Ecker, I would be doing what Ellen Sauerbrey did in 1993 when I was running against someone much better-known than I was," said Sauerbrey, noting that she started out with 3 percent name recognition. "To overcome that, you've got to be at every Lincoln Day dinner, every fund-raiser or crab feast, every place where 10 or more Republicans are gathered."

    Ecker grew up in rural Carroll County, where his dad was a blue-collar Democrat working in the local cement plant and feed mill. Like Sauerbrey, Ecker started out as a teacher. (Yet another coincidence: Both attended Western Maryland College.) But it was not an interest in academics that attracted Ecker to the profession.

    "I loved sports; I liked to play and be active," said Ecker, who taught gym in Carroll County. He moved into administration, serving as superintendent of transportation there, and then worked his way through similar positions in Prince George's County and then Howard County, where he retired as a deputy superintendent.

    In fast-growing Howard, where his predecessor had alienated the pro- and anti-development camps, Ecker was strangely blessed by the recession. The slower pace of growth gave the retired bureaucrat a chance to show off his strengths: creating consensus on the growth issue, trimming the budget and managing the county during leaner times. He inherited a $25 million deficit, his supporters like to point out, and within four years had a surplus of $23 million.

    But some of his actions have been poorly received. A proposal early in his administration to charge residents a separate garbage fee sparked outrage. More recently, he became embroiled in a public battle with Howard County State's Attorney Marna McLendon (R) over allegations that some correctional officers were abusing prisoners. (McLendon's office charged the guards criminally; Ecker backed the guards and jail officials and spent $15,000 in county money to defray the men's legal fees.) The guards were eventually cleared.

    But even the community activists and environmentalists who sometimes disagree with Ecker's positions are hard put to find fault with him generally.

    "He is truly a nice man who deals with people honestly and will probably be better for the environment than Sauerbrey," said Nancy Davis, a leader of the Howard County chapter of the Sierra Club.

    If only the local leaders of Ecker's party felt the same way. Howard County, with its surging population of Republican voters and elected officials, has been the state GOP's showpiece jurisdiction. Party leaders such as Dels. Robert H. Kittleman (R-Howard) and Robert L. Flanagan (D-Howard) have thrown their support to Sauerbrey.

    Ecker would have been "a fantastic nominee" in previous elections, Kittleman said, "but these days, the Maryland Republican Party suffers from an embarrassment of riches."

    Flanagan said, "I think generally Republicans would prefer to see Chuck Ecker pursue another alternative." He argues that Ecker will simply cause Sauerbrey to spend time and money that she should be using to defeat the Democrats in the general election.

    Outside Howard County, supporters say that they like what they hear about Ecker but that they believe not enough people are getting his message.

    "What he's done with the budget is great. Howard has been one of the top counties in Maryland for attracting new jobs. He's got positions on social issues that people down here like," said Lee B. Sturgill, an Ecker supporter from Upper Marlboro. "He has one handicap. [Sauerbrey] is everywhere."

    Even among the folks in his home turf, he has his work cut out for him in spreading the word.

    At the New Windsor parade, Ruth and Dick Zile, who have known Ecker since he was a boy doing chores on his grandfather's farm, have nothing but praise for him. But they were shocked to hear he was aspiring to higher office.

    "He's got my vote," Dick Zile said. "What did you say he's running for?"

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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