The political arm of the African American Coalition of Howard County endorsed County Council member Charles C. Feaga last weekend for the Republican county executive nomination, a decision black leaders said was "fraught with risk."

The African Americans in Howard Political Action Committee, which represents 35 black-congregation churches and 50 other organizations, chose Feaga (West County) over council member Dennis R. Schrader (Southeast County) because Feaga voted in favor of the controversial Rouse development in North Laurel.

In its endorsement statement, the group said Feaga "has been there with {the coalition} on several key low and moderate income housing votes." The group acknowledged that the choice might be controversial, given Schrader's support of affirmative action and the appointment of the county's first African American judge.

"I think we just have to let the voters decide," Schrader said. "I really don't pay attention to the special-interest groups and what their endorsement standards are. I really don't know" how they made the choice.

The endorsement means that Feaga's name will be included on 10,000 voters-guide cards that the coalition will pass out at member churches and organizations. Coalition members will distribute cards at the polls on Election Day.

"I feel like what I do most in helping individuals and groups is to create a level playing field," Feaga said. "It's great to have their support. I welcome it."

In Howard, one of country's wealthiest counties, the coalition has made expanding low- and moderate-income housing a top priority. Black leaders fear that Howard's expensive housing stock is forcing too many public and low-wage private-sector employees, many of them African American, to live in other counties and choose to work there as a result. Blacks now make up about 12 percent of Howard residents.

As a result, the coalition pushed hard for the Rouse project, a mix of 1,200 homes and 1.6 million square-feet of commercial construction on 522 acres in southeastern Howard. Five percent of those homes will be sold at prices affordable to low- and moderate-income residents.

At the risk of alienating residents of southern Howard in his countywide race, Feaga voted to rezone the property to allow Rouse to proceed. Schrader, whose district includes the Rouse parcel, heeded calls from neighbors and voted against it. Those several hundred residents vowed to support Schrader and work against Feaga in the Sept. 15 primary.

Sherman Howell, the coalition's vice president for political affairs, said the group considers issues that affect low-income families, such as housing, to be more important than past endorsements or county-level affirmative action.

"Feaga is solid on the coalition's flagship issue of low- and moderate-priced housing," Howell said. "He fought a good fight for us {in supporting the Rouse project}. He had nothing to gain by joining with us. In fact, he had far more to lose."

As vice president in charge of construction for the University of Maryland Medical System, Schrader testified in Annapolis in the mid-1990s in favor of expanding affirmative action in awarding state construction contracts. Feaga opposes using race as a factor in hiring or awarding public business. Both candidates are white.

Schrader's testimony helped him win the coalition's endorsement four years ago in his council race. But Howell said that since taking office, Schrader has not worked to help minority contractors better compete for county business.

"He may have testified, but what has he done?" Howell said.

Schrader also endorsed Circuit Court Judge Donna Hill Staton for reelection in 1996. Staton became the county's first black judge a year earlier when Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) appointed her to the bench. But the election became racially charged, and Schrader said as much in endorsing Staton, angering many Republicans, including Feaga, who signed a petition favoring the opposing ticket. Feaga said that although he opposes affirmative action, he would work against barriers that prevent all small firms from competing for public contracts. Howard lowered the bonding requirement a few years ago after small-business owners complained the high insurance cost kept them from bidding on public projects. "I'm going to change any law that keeps people out of the circle," he said.