The week before the Columbia Democratic Club met to endorse political candidates, some 130 more people signed as members, practically doubling the size of this organization of Columbia's liberal-minded citizens.
Then hours before the Thursday night meeting, a mysterious hand dropped copies of an unflattering newspaper article about gubernatorial candidate Theodore G. Venetoulis on every chair set up at Kaylor Hall.
Columbia, the new town oasis of suburbanites in Howard County, had been invaded. Political tricks and statewide politics were edging in on their "little local meeting."
The event convened with the club's biggest crowd to date - 218 in attendance - and the endorsement plum at stake. Representatives from the four Democratic gubernatorial camps were on hand.
Columbia is the key to the Howard County's erratic Democratic vote, one strategist explained, and Howard is a swing "rim county." Its 120,000 residents are on the edge of the Baltimore and Washington political worlds and a bellwether of both.
Ruth Keeton, a member of the Howard County Council and the club, was at first flattered by the sudden surge of attention. "I don't think there's been an evening comparable to tonight. Our county's grown, so fast I didn't think we were noticed."
When the meeting broke up at 1 a.m. however, a number of club regulars were furious. No gubernatorial candidate was endorsed and no immediate answer was forthcoming to the question of "who stacked the meeting."
A suggestion came immediately from one quarter: "The Venetoulis crowd put up the 100 new members," claimed Frank Conover, a supporter of gubernatorial candidate Walter S. Orlinsky. Orlinsky had nurturted the club's gatherings with quips and detailed expositions on the issues.
Orlinsky's brother, S. Zeke Orlinsky, the newspaper publisher of the town, came to the meeting in his tennis whites and oversaw the ballot counting to insure that his brother was treated fairly.
James K. Egan III, president of the club, said Venetoulis should not be accused of packing the gathering. "I talked to everyone who brought their $5 membership checks to my door. Thirty came from south county - mostly they were for (acting governor) Blair Lee III. Another 20 or 30 were supporters of a school board candidate, just as many were for a County Council candidate. I'd say 20 or 30 were Venetoulis people."
"Once it got out that new members were joining. I guess the idea spread like wildfire," he said. "Maybe we'll have to change our by-laws."
In another setting, one that bore less resemblance to a gathering of serious-minded college volunteers, something might have occured to mar the endorsement session - an argument or possibly name calling. Instead, the Columbians kept their ill-humor in the back rooms.
The names of 43 candidates running for 16 offices were read off by Egan to a quiet hall. Supporters rose to speak on the behalf. When the [WORDS ILLEGIBLE] the candidates for governor, no one spoke for Lee or Attorney General Francis B. Burch, who the next morning dropped out of the race.
Lee's county coordinator said in endorsement for his candidate would have been impossible from Columbia, so nothing was said. Lee's camp takes the endorsement game seriously, sending out press releases almost daily about each club or official who gives Lee the nod.
Lee's strategy was right. Venetoulis won the first balloting: he had 104 votes while his closest competitors, Lee and Harry Hughes, polled 38 votes each. That was not the majority needed for an endorsement, so a second vote was taken shortly before midnight.
Back in the kitchen, where club members were tallying the votes, State Sen. James Clark Jr. perched on a counter to see if he could win an endorsement on the second round.
"This guy named 'other' is doing pretty well tonight," Clark said. Clark, too, had won the first vote, but not by a majority of those casting ballots. Clark, the county's senior senator and a member of the Clark farming family of Howard, was feeling the effects of new voters who were rejecting his older style of politices and his endorsement of a candidate they didn't like in the local county executive race.
Columbia has stood apart from the Howard County of Clark's ancestors since it was built by developer James B. Rouse a decade ago as a model for "the next America."
The incompatibility of the two has led to the recent flip-flop voting pattern in this largely Democratic area. In 1972 the county voted for Sen. George McGovern in the presidential race in 1976, it was Gerald R. Ford who won.
This night, it was Clark who finally lost. The category "other" outpolled him 59 to 54. As Clark walked out of the kitchen, Zeke Orlinsky said, "If Clark lived in another county I'd support him."
Venetoulis won the second ballot, but again without a majority. The Columbia Democratic Club, like the neighboring Ellicott City Democratic Club, will not endorse in the gubernatorial primary.
Only the Southern Howard County Democratic Club has endorsed. Their candidate is Harry R. Hughes who got this, his only major endorsement, because the club was deadlocked between two other candidates.