The Howard County Council elected its first Republican chairman in seven years, in a 3 to 2 vote last night that saw one Democrat switch allegiance and throw his support to the GOP.
With the help of Democrat David A. Rakes (East Columbia), council member Christopher J. Merdon (R-Northeast County) assumed the one-year chairmanship, ousting the incumbent.
"David voted for me because he trusts me," said Merdon, who is the leading candidate for the Republican nomination for county executive in 2006. "He felt that I would respect him and make sure all members are heard."
The leadership change marked the first time in the council's history that a member of the minority party was elected to the top leadership position. There are two Republicans and three Democrats on the County Council.
"This is a big night for the Howard County GOP," said Howard Rensin, chairman of the county Republican Party. He said the county GOP was especially pleased about Rakes's support because he is the only African American on the council. Rensin called Rakes's vote a "good omen" for the GOP.
But the county's Democratic Party chairman, Wendy Fiedler, said Rakes effectively "ended his career tonight with the Democratic Party." Rakes is seeking reelection next year.
Rakes, who was investigated and cleared of ethics violations by a county ethics panel after he voted last year for a liquor license for his campaign treasurer, said, "A change was needed in the council leadership." He said he didn't like the "general direction, leadership or overall management" of fellow Democrat Guy Guzzone (D-Southeast County).
Guzzone served three consecutive terms as council chairman and had hoped to be reelected to a fourth.
"It's unusual for a member to defect from his party," Guzzone said. He added that he thought Rakes was retaliating because Guzzone and fellow Democrat Ken Ulman (West Columbia) did not rise to Rakes's defense during the probe by the ethics commission. The Maryland state prosecutor is also said to be looking into the matter.
The political changing of the guard consumed much of the meeting, and the panel deferred action until next month on what may have been the most controversial item on its agenda: a proposed smoking ban that had been sought by County Executive James N. Robey (D).
A majority of the five-member council -- Rakes, Charles C. Feaga (R-West County) and Merdon -- said it would back an alternative bill introduced last night by Rakes.
That bill, which the business community supports, would allow smoking in bars and restaurants that already had established separate, ventilated areas for smokers to comply with a 1996 law. The bill would ban smoking in any new restaurants and bars.
Rakes said in an interview before the meeting that he did not want to penalize establishments that had set up separate smoking areas. His measure is backed by several business groups.
Robey's bill would have outlawed smoking in restaurants and bars but would have given establishments with separately ventilated smoking areas until 2008 to comply.
Montgomery and Prince George's counties have enacted smoking bans, and the District is expected to approve a similar measure soon.
Smoking opponents say bans do not hurt restaurants and bars. The Montgomery County Council released a report last month showing that the smoking ban there has had little effect on restaurant income or employment.
The debate over smoking in Howard may foreshadow an issue in state and local elections next year. A statewide ban is being pushed by health lobbyists and others in Annapolis. In Howard, the debate is likely to spill into the race for county executive and possibly into State House contests.