Liberation Of a Liberal: Md.'s Bobo Comfortable Sitting on Back Bench
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 6, 1998; Page B01
On Nov. 6, 1990, Elizabeth Bobo watched with dismay and despair as the votes accumulated against her. She was the Howard county executive, a rising Democratic politician frequently touted as a future candidate for statewide office. But the numbers that night were grim: behind in the northeast, neck-and-neck in the south, trounced in the west.
When it was over, Bobo had lost to Republican upstart Charles I. Ecker by less than 500 votes, about six votes per precinct. Devoted Democrats who didn't vote couldn't forgive themselves.
But Bobo does. Today, in fact, she thanks them.
Now a first-term state delegate representing a slice of Columbia, the unrepentant liberal has learned that victory can come disguised as defeat. Her loss eight years ago has led to a second marriage, a New Age turn and a political reincarnation as a populist willing to buck the political mainstream.
"I'm not in any leadership position here, and with my voting record, I'm not heading that way," Bobo said. "And that's just fine."
Once propelled by ambition, Bobo, 54, has become a niche politician who promptly played herself onto the legislature's back benches by thwarting the Democratic leadership, committee colleagues and even fellow members of the county delegation.
"Fringe" is the word usually used to describe Bobo's political locale these days. When Bobo asked House leaders for a seat on the Environmental Matters Committee, she was informed that she was "too much of an environmentalist" for the assignment.
"When she was younger, she probably had high aspirations, and to do so, you have to compromise, wheel and deal," said Brad Coker, a pollster who worked against Bobo in 1990. "Now she's comfortable where she is. She will probably stay where she is as long as she wants, and she can speak her mind. In a way, that's liberating."
Assigned to the Commerce and Government Matters Committee, Bobo has emerged as a strong, if occasionally irksome, voice on consumer issues and ethics. A borderline crank even. She recently demanded that a purple 1991 Harley-Davidson be removed from a House hearing room during debate on repealing the state's helmet law. A helmet use supporter, she said the presence of a motorcycle indoors violated state health and safety regulations.
In her new role, Bobo has taken up the cudgel against big financial institutions, deploring ATM fees, bounced-check policies and cursory service for the poor. Twice she has failed at forcing banks to offer low-cost bank accounts to poor consumers.
"I've always been a believer that you try something for a couple years, and if it doesn't work, you walk away from it," said Del. John F. Wood Jr. (D-St. Mary's), chairman of the Commerce and Government Matters Committee. "Her agenda and mine are very different. She doesn't work as well with people as we would like."
Bobo also has angered State House colleagues for not toeing the line on ethics discussion. This year in Annapolis a state senator was expelled for allegedly using his office for personal gain and a delegate resigned amid an investigation. Many lawmakers said the spectacle was proof of how difficult it is to juggle the personal and political in a part-time legislature. Bobo disagrees, saying: "People keep talking about this fine line. There isn't a fine line. It's pretty clear what we can and cannot do."
Del. Shane Pendergrass (D-Howard), who served on the County Council when Bobo was executive, applauds Bobo for sticking to her principles. "On any committee, you have people on either end of the extreme, and for Liz that's extremely ethical," Pendergrass said. "Having a person pulling in that direction brings the whole group a little in that direction."
Born in Baltimore, Bobo moved to Howard with her first husband in 1966. She served two terms on the council and received a law degree before seeking the top job in 1986. By then, Bobo was a single mother raising two children.
Male candidates dismissed her for "never having met a payroll." But Bobo won with 63 percent of the vote and delivered the county its first Triple-A bond rating.
By 1990, amid fierce debate over the pace of development in the fast-growing outer county, Bobo was sharply criticized for imposing a measure to curtail new house construction. The attacks came from both sides -- slow-growth advocates complained that she waited too long while developers said she was turning off the economic spigot. Suddenly, an executive who could be gregarious with constituents would intentionally avoid people at political events. She had, by her own admission, lost touch. And the election results that November showed it.
"She was someone who was clearly on the rise," said Del. Robert L. Flanagan (Howard), the GOP whip. "But she didn't understand the free enterprise system."
The loss turned out to be a personal watershed of sorts. In 1993, she married Lloyd G. Knowles, a retired engineer who served on the council with Bobo. Knowles, a county fixture both because of his long political tenure and the long ponytail he grew afterward, now works as his wife's aide. Bobo says, "There is no doubt in my mind that I wouldn't be married today if I had won."
She won a single-member district easily in 1994 after a stint in state government. But she vowed this time she wouldn't "get hooked."
Visiting constituents one day, she walked into the Traditional Acupuncture Institute. That started her taking personal growth classes, Chinese philosophy and other subjects well off the beaten path of politics. She wears a ring decorated with the yin-yang on her little finger, along with pearls around her neck.
"Liz has come to understand that she needs to redefine success," Knowles said.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company