When Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer suggested this year that relatively wealthy local governments assume more of the costs of building schools, he set off a highly publicized feud with some suburban county executives. But Howard County's Elizabeth Bobo remained silent.
A host of political leaders were in the spotlight last winter as word of their proposed tax increases swept the suburbs. Elizabeth Bobo was nowhere to be found.
During a year in which Maryland politics has been dominated by outspoken, highly visible officials -- including Schaefer and such county executives as Sidney Kramer of Montgomery, Parris Glendening of Prince George's and James Lighthizer of Anne Arundel -- the state's first woman county executive has made an art of prolonged, and quiet, deliberation.
In her first 12 months in office, understatement has become her greatest weapon. Where others might offer quick fixes or embark on public relations campaigns to further their causes, she is more likely to feign ignorance about her agenda. And so far, at least, it has worked.
On the eve of her first anniversary as Howard County executive, Bobo is more than satisfied. Riding the wave of personal popularity that gave her a 2-to-1 victory over her Republican rival last year, she has made progress on most of her campaign promises without encountering significant opposition.
Bankers and the business community praise her as a skilled financial manager, and they mounted little protest to the hefty tax increase she handed county property owners early in the year. Advocates of affordable housing and other social services hail her sensitivity to their requests.
Some political observers attribute the relative harmony to the honeymoon period afforded elected officials during their first terms. Yet it is also a result of Bobo's low-key approach, they say. A politician who is far more pragmatic than ideological, she has consistently shunned high-profile, big-ticket solutions that might make headlines, in favor of small incremental steps that often go unannounced or unnoticed.
If she is at risk of appearing humdrum, she does not seem to mind. She frequently tells reporters that her job is to run a government, not provide them with stories. Such an attitude might seem anachronistic in the fast-paced, media-mad 1980s. But it is what feels right to a 43-year-old former County Council member who worries about her weight (she is losing some), sneaks cigarettes in her office ("I'm not proud of it"), and refuses to give prepared speeches.
"Obviously, I like good publicity, but I made a decision that I was going to use a very deliberate, methodical way of doing things," Bobo said. "Sometimes it's tempting to go for something a little more flashy or flamboyant. But one, that's not my style; two, I don't think it's the best way to get things done, and three, I don't think it's what the people of Howard County are looking for."
Take her initiative on a public transportation system, for example. Howard County does not have one, and Bobo campaigned on a promise to create some form of mass transit. But instead of buying buses for a fixed route system or a Ride-On network, she appointed a transportation coordinator and gave him funds to begin doing surveys. In short, she concedes, the results will probably not offer a full-fledged Howard system, but rather a few new routes extending from the Baltimore and Washington Metrobus systems.
As executive of a predominantly rural county lodged between two major cities that is beginning to feel the strain of its rapid growth, Bobo takes a cautious approach toward government curbs on development.
Although mansions are rapidly overtaking much of Howard's remaining agricultural land, she says she will probably not endorse efforts to restrict building activity through tighter zoning regulations. She insists that the county is up to the task of widening its roads and improving its sewer systems, and that it can be done, after this year, while maintaining a stable tax rate.
"I'm not looking to make a lot of major changes," she said recently. "I think we had a pretty good system of government and pretty good priorities. I'm shifting some of them, but my main interest is in keeping the county on a slow, steady course."
She may not be interested in getting her picture on television, but she does want to be known to her 165,000 constituents, who include farmers suspicious of government intervention, urban refugees in search of clear roads and low taxes, and young parents anxious to provide their children with a good education.
On any given night and on most weekends, Bobo's boisterous laugh, a trademark of sorts, can be heard wafting through the meeting of some community group, from the West Friendship Volunteer Fire Association to the local NAACP.
The same interest groups that supported her in her election bid continue to support her now. The police officers union, though fighting an administration plan to help "I think we had a pretty good system of government and pretty good priorities. I'm shifting some of them, but my main interest is in keeping the county on a slow, steady course."
-- Elizabeth Bobo
promote women and minorities through the ranks, had one of its major requests met when Bobo authorized $5 million for an improved radio communications system. Adding more officers on the force was, in fact, her first executive order.
Earl Arminger, president of the Howard County Homebuilders Association, said its members had witnessed a positive change in their dealings with the county government after Bobo was elected.
"From day one, we've seen dialogue rather than confrontation, from the department heads right down to the staff people," Arminger said. "It hasn't speeded our plans up or anything, but it makes the business more pleasant."
Education advocates also give Bobo high marks. Sandra French, president of the Howard County PTA Council, said that some parents had been concerned by Bobo's desire to hold a tax rate increase to 10 cents. "That would have meant total disaster for the education
budget," French said. Eventually, in what Bobo said was one of her most difficult decisions, the county boosted the tax rate by 22 cents and agreed to give teachers an 8 percent pay raise.
When Bobo cut funds from her budget for a new middle school in a rapidly growing area, "The situation never got nasty because she took the time to call us into her office, explain her position and hear ours. We didn't change her mind and she didn't change ours. But it was a very respectful, reasonable approach," French said.
"Besides," she added, "I think it's neat having a woman in the executive's office."
Such back-room diplomacy has, at times, masked action. An example of Bobo's style is the way she handled her political appointments, widely considered a masterly achievement during her administration's first 12 months. Since moving into the executive's suite, Bobo has replaced nine longtime department heads and created three positions. In several instances, including deciding the fate of the embattled former police chief, she was under much pressure to act quickly.
The process took more than six months, prompting mild criticism from some employes who believed that it was interfering with morale. Yet invariably, the appointees, including the chief, were allowed to resign rather than endure the public embarrassment of being fired.
Her efforts to increase the county's pool of housing for families with low incomes also were handled without fanfare -- and, consequently, with little political opposition. Her administration has pledged $200,000 to build a 20-bed addition to a shelter for the homeless and $500,000 to build a 30-unit subsidized apartment complex.
"What I hear within the county is that people had really had enough confrontation in their government," Bobo said. "I don't think it's a very good image for government people to be bickering all the time. I can be confrontational when I have to."
But observers are wondering whether the tone of personal restraint that has served Bobo so well during her first year in office will work during the rest of her term. The cost of running a growing county is increasing faster than its revenues. The county government, which in recent years has borrowed heavily to pay for roads and public buildings, has numerous public works projects to complete.
"There is going to be a real financial crunch that she's going to have to face in the next couple of years," said Del. Robert Kittleman, a Republican whose district includes parts of Montgomery and Howard counties. "If you are going to keep on providing the level of services Howard County does, there has to be a way to pay for it. This year she raised taxes. But she can't do that every year wthout running into some opposition."
Council member Angela Beltram, an Ellicott City Democrat, said that Bobo is likely to encounter greater opposition to her hands-off approach on land use issues. She noted, however, that the executive got her start in county politics by fighting a road that was scheduled to go through her neighborhood, and that Bobo is capable of being swayed to take a harder antidevelopment stand.
"Liz likes to get a lot of input and reach some sort of consensus before she makes a decision," Beltram said. "You can get in there and argue your point with her. She doesn't make any promises, but at least she listens."
For her part, Bobo said she is not worried. She has appointed a committee to monitor the county's debt levels and recently hired some financial advisers. On land use issues, she believes that the county is still ahead of the game. And if she is planning to try to raise taxes again, she is not telling.
"I'm sure not everybody is as pleased with the first year as I am, but I don't plan on doing anything differently," she said.
In terms of her political future, Bobo will say that she has "every intention of running for a second term." Asked about her goals for the next year, she gave a characteristic reply:
"I don't know," she said. "I
haven't really thought about it."