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Howard County's Ecker Joins Md. Governor's Race

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 30, 1997; Page D01

Charles I. Ecker, Howard's homespun Republican executive who is highly popular at home but little known outside county lines, announced his upstart campaign for Maryland governor yesterday, casting himself as a quiet, competent alternative to his party's leading candidate.

Stressing his experience steering Howard through a fiscal crisis and into financial health during two terms as county executive, Ecker told a gathering of more than 400 people at the Turf Valley Resort and Conference Center in Ellicott City that "people do not, I repeat do not, want the same choices for governor in 1998 that they had in 1994."

The reference was one of several veiled digs at Ellen R. Sauerbrey, Ecker's leading opponent for the GOP nomination next year. Sauerbrey, who narrowly lost the 1994 race to Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), is considered the favorite for the nomination because of her huge advantage in name recognition and fund-raising. Still, Ecker said he was undaunted.

"I approach this campaign with a lot of confidence," said Ecker, 68, who changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican in 1989. "I plan to run a strong, positive campaign. I promise that I will operate the state in a quiet efficient manner without seeking self-glory. I am a workhorse, not a show horse."

While many Republicans view his bid as quixotic, even divisive, Ecker has a history as an underdog. In 1990, as a newcomer to elective politics, Ecker defeated Howard's incumbent Democratic county executive, Elizabeth Bobo, by less than 500 votes in a race still spoken of in Howard as a stunning upset.

He said in an interview that he expects the primary "to be a contest, not a coronation," despite Sauerbrey's nearly 10 to 1 fund-raising advantage and a recent poll that shows him trailing badly. The GOP primary is scheduled for Sept. 15.

"It's not a winnable race for him," said Brad Coker, president of Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research.

But many party leaders, including several elected officials attending Ecker's announcement, are concerned that Sauerbrey may be too conservative to win a general election against Glendening in a state where Democrats still hold a 2 to 1 edge in registered voters.

Ecker's supporters say Sauerbrey's -- and Glendening's -- failure to rise above 45 percent popularity in statewide polls is a sign each is vulnerable.

State Sen. Robert R. Neall (R-Anne Arundel), a leading GOP moderate who serves on Ecker's steering committee, said Ecker's "excellent experience" will make him a formidable challenger to Sauerbrey. Even when Glendening's approval rating fell to one of the lowest of any governor in the nation last year, he noted, Sauerbrey failed to pick up much support.

"I think the reason is that people are not happy with the choices," Neall said. "Anything can happen in a year."

Rachel Hemp, who knew Ecker when he was assistant superintendent of Carroll County schools, attended yesterday's announcement and alluded to his affable, grandfatherly demeanor.

"You know what," she said. "I haven't heard anybody who likes her. And you can't help but like him."

Ecker, who received a doctorate from the University of North Carolina, offered little indication of how he would govern Maryland. Instead, he indicated that he will contrast his accomplishments running a complex county government with a $330 million annual budget with Sauerbrey's resume as the former Republican leader in the House of Delegates, a job Ecker considers more political than actual leadership experience.

A former deputy superintendent of Howard's well-regarded school system, Ecker said he plans to make education a central plank of his platform, as well as a new formula for the distribution of $2 billion in annual state aide to public schools. He also trumpets Howard's job growth -- which ranks among the highest in the state -- since he took office.

"My record of 36 years as an educator, my record as a two-term county executive, my style and my accomplishments are in sharp contrast with my opponents," Ecker said in his prepared speech.

Ecker inherited a $23 million annual budget deficit when he took office in 1990, which was a dark period for a county dependent on the real estate industry. He moved quickly, laying off 40 employees and raising the property tax rate 15 cents in 1991, to patch up the budget. He has not raised property or income taxes since, but in 1996 he imposed a $125-per-household trash fee that prompted brief protest.

Ecker has also been accused of failing to manage Howard's dramatic growth.

During his tenure, Howard has built up the largest per capita debt in the state, largely because Ecker decided to build schools to accommodate growth and keep class size small rather than tighten controls on new construction.

The portion of Howard's budget consumed by debt service has risen from 8 percent to 12 percent during his seven years in office.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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