ANNAPOLIS -- With incumbents comfortably ensconced in the governor's office, the state's congressional delegation and most county government buildings this election year, the vacancy in Anne Arundel County's highest post has stood out like a loose diamond in Maryland politics.
Both political parties see the race as one of the few tests of their strength in the state this year. The winner will have to wrestle with a highly organized tax limitation movement while facing the problems that come with fast-growing suburbs.
But with a little more than two weeks until the Sept. 11 primary, the county executive's race has yet to generate many sparks.
"You don't see the pizazz you see in other open-seat years," said the outgoing county executive, Democrat James Lighthizer. "There is nowhere near the level of intensity you saw in 1982 . . . . What you are seeing is some very conventional and conservative campaigning."
Lighthizer's observations are not just the sour grapes of a politician who is forbidden by county law from seeking a third term. Other political leaders agree that with a clear favorite on the Republican side and four Democratic candidates waging low-key campaigns, voter turnout will probably be low for the most significant primary here since Lighthizer was elected eight years ago.
"I find this race is not generating the excitement that a lot of races do and I don't understand it," said County Council member Maureen Lamb, a Democrat who represents the Annapolis area.
After Lighthizer's tenure, many had been predicting that the race to name his successor would ignite fireworks. The Democratic candidates, especially, were expected to do battle over whether Lighthizer's legacy of strong fiscal management, increased social services spending and innovative growth control should be carried into the 1990s.
All of the candidates agree that the politician who is ultimately chosen to lead Anne Arundel's 424,000 residents during the 1990s faces a considerable challenge. Like other prosperous Maryland counties, Arundel, which is a suburb of both Washington and Baltimore, experienced a building boom during the 1980s that has left its residents disenchanted and the government scrambling to build roads, schools and libraries.
At the same time, the rapid pace of development combined with the county's reputation as a Chesapeake Bay retreat gave rise to a grass-roots environmental movement that has relentlessly demanded controls to protect water quality and limit growth. Meanwhile, an increase in drug-related crime has created citizen demands for better police protection.
While polls indicate these "quality of life" issues form the core of voters' concerns this election year, many observers suspect the low-key tenor of the primary election indicates that there is not widespread disaffection among the county's electorate, in part because Lighthizer has done a respectable job of addressing the most visible problems.
Another factor is the bitter taxpayer's revolt, with the Democrats hesitant to offer detailed agendas that would distinguish them to voters and possibly leave them vulnerable to criticism, observers say.
"I think they are all singing off the same sheet of music," said state Sen. Michael J. Wagner, the dean of Democratic politics in Anne Arundel.
GOP activists have high hopes for Republican candidate Robert R. Neall, former House of Delegates majority leader and a confidant of Gov. William Donald Schaefer. Neall, 41, faces only nominal opposition in the Sept. 11 primary from Glen Burnie restaurant owner William R. Steiner Jr., 50, a political unknown who will be tried here this week on charges of receiving stolen property.
Democratic voters will choose from a field of four candidates: Theodore J. Sophocleus, 51, a County Council member and Linthicum pharmacist; Michael F. Gilligan, 47, a council member and Glen Burnie lawyer; former Annapolis mayor Dennis Callahan, 47; and Patricia Aiken, 61, a former Annapolis state delegate turned environmental activist.
The Democratic primary already has set records for spending because of the advent of cable television as the preferred advertising medium. But with two sitting Democratic council members with similar outlooks and backgrounds competing in the race, party leaders have shied away from making endorsements.
Observers here say the standoff between the two front-runners, Sophocleus and Gilligan, makes sense. The two, after all, are colleagues who sit next to each other at council meetings and represent similar, blue-collar districts near Baltimore. As Gilligan points out, "It would be silly for me to attack him when our records are so similar."
In addition, the two candidates have been sounding identical, populist themes in their campaign materials that would seem less credible if they were constantly trading barbs. According to Gilligan, the approach is the result of what polls have found to be Lighthizer's primary weakness: the perception that he is aloof and his aides inaccessible.
Callahan, a millionaire businessman, has his own reasons for pulling his punches. As mayor of Annapolis, he was criticized for a combative and vindictive leadership style. Many people cite the mayor's tough talk as the reason he lost his first bid for reelection to a soft-spoken alderman during last September's primary.
Of all the candidates, Aiken has been the most pointed in her remarks, criticizing the Lighthizer administration, and by extension Gilligan and Sophocleus, for not doing enough to keep pollutants out of the county's rivers and creeks. But because she has little money to get her message across, the other candidates have not answered her charges.
One new issue is the taxpayers revolt that helped place a strict property tax limitation measure on the county's November ballot. About 20,000 people signed petitions to ask voters whether the county should be required to roll back property taxes to 1989 levels. While none of the candidates has embraced the measure, Callahan is the only one who has made a concerted effort to attract votes by playing on the widespread frustration over rising tax bills.
Many observers believe that in a year when voters seem to be hungering for the common touch, Sophocleus has the advantage.
A gregarious longtime civic activist and Little League coach, he has accrued significant support from civic groups countywide. In addition, last week he won one of the election's most coveted endorsements, from the Sierra Club.
Gilligan, a more reserved politician who acknowledges that a stiff speaking style is his biggest liability, has tried to overcome his colleague's edge by running an intense, media-heavy campaign. He has also been aided by an endorsement from the county's teachers union, which cited his reputation for reliability and honesty.
"This county is in a lot better shape than when Jim Lighthizer came on board and this is Ted and Mike's predicament because so often you win a campaign with negatives," said council member Lamb.