Howard County Executive Elizabeth Bobo sought yesterday to minimize the sting of voters' verdict on her performance, saying many of the region's incumbents felt the same slap.
"It was a very restless electorate just looking for some . . . symbol of their unhappiness," said Bobo, who spoke to reporters while county election officials waited to tally the more than 1,800 absentee ballots that will determine today whether she was defeated.
Interviews with local officials, voters and political observers, however, suggest that generalized voter dissatisfaction was just one factor in Bobo's failure to trounce Republican Charles I. Ecker, who now leads by 244 votes. Bobo, many said, shares the blame.
Bobo's occasionally frosty, thin-skinned demeanor and her efforts to placate both developers and their slow-growth opponents cost her support from the traditional source of her strength: citizen activists.
"It was a vote to get Liz out of there. This was a protest against growth and for the only person who opposed her," said Thomas Draper, an Ellicott City activist.
"She forgot the people who helped her get where she is today," said one politically active citizen leader. "She snubbed a lot of people."
Although Bobo received considerable developer money, "Some people in the business community today are ecstatic," said lawyer Ron Schimel, a Bobo ally who often represents developers.
"The development community has felt for four years that they have been under siege, that Liz had a very big agenda," he said.
Bobo's troubles, as well as the Democrats' loss of three seats in the state legislature and one on the County Council, also stemmed in part from disarray into the Democratic Party's organization and dramatic Republican registration gains during the Reagan-Bush years.
Bobo insiders said it was too early to attribute the 46-year-old lawyer's probable loss to any flaws in her organization or weaknesses in her record.
But they said Republicans turned out in unexpectedly high numbers. Bobo garnered about 60 percent of the vote in Columbia, while her challenger captured about that percentage in the rural west, Ellicott City and the rapidly growing south county areas of Laurel and Savage.
Ecker already has announced his intention to fire Bobo's director of planning and zoning, Uri P. Avin, a smooth, academically oriented planner who never won a warm reception from builders.
Bobo's weaknesses with the warring camps in the growth war and her somewhat stiff public persona were key targets of Ecker's strategists.
The approach from the start was to attack Bobo from the left on growth and from the right on taxes and spending, said Columbia pollster Brad Coker, an Ecker consultant.
Ecker ran a shoestring campaign in which he lent himself $30,000. Bobo, who had the support of Gov. William Donald Schaefer and financial backing from many developers, raised about $150,000.
Draper said he and other anti-growth activists turned to Republicans such as Ecker, not because they feel political affinity with them, but because, on local issues, they represent the only alternative.
"I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, and I voted for more Republicans in this election than I have in my life," Draper said. "I went away from the county for a few years. And when I came back and saw the clogged roads and everything, I said, 'We're going to make every mistake there is.' "
Angela Beltram, another victim of the GOP tidal wave in Howard County and the strongest slow-growth member of the council, said it's too easy to call the mood anti-incumbent. "Maybe we should have targeted Democrats better," said Beltram, who lost to Republican Darrell Drown in the 2nd District.
"Voters didn't turn out; we didn't get the vote out," said Democratic Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, who lost. "We didn't do our job."
Another factor in Beltram's loss is probably the Republican registration gains, which have been transforming the county's political landscape, especially Beltram's district.
"I go up and knock on the doors in these new developments, and it's people who don't know me from Adam, people with long driveways, with expensive cars," Beltram said last summer.
Republican Party officials have been pointing to Howard County as the first place where their efforts to register new voters would bear fruit.
"I told you all I would win, but nobody listened," Ecker said Tuesday night.