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Liz Bobo, Howard County’s first and only female county executive, reflects on her life and career in politics

Liz Bobo, 76, at home in Columbia, reflects on her career as Howard County's first and only female county executive, and on her service in the Maryland House of Delegates. Bobo will be the featured speaker at the Howard County Historical Society’s annual meeting on Feb. 23 in Ellicott City, as part of the county's celebration of the Year of the Howard County Woman.
Liz Bobo, 76, at home in Columbia, reflects on her career as Howard County's first and only female county executive, and on her service in the Maryland House of Delegates. Bobo will be the featured speaker at the Howard County Historical Society’s annual meeting on Feb. 23 in Ellicott City, as part of the county's celebration of the Year of the Howard County Woman.(Amy Davis)

Since retiring in 2014 from a political career that spanned nearly 40 years, Elizabeth “Liz” Bobo has made it a priority to have “as few events as possible showing up” on her calendar.

That doesn’t mean Howard County’s first and only female county executive — who also served as a state delegate for 20 years and on the County Council for two terms — is no longer active in community affairs.

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Bobo, 76, is the face of the Year of the Howard County Woman, a yearlong celebration of the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which gave women the right to vote.

On Sunday, the Columbia Democrat will give the keynote address at the annual meeting of the Howard County Historical Society, which is leading the celebration.

The event, which is open to the public, will be held from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Miller Branch library in Ellicott City. Bobo will give a 30-minute talk at 2:15 p.m., followed by a question-and-answer session.

The freedom that comes from resisting a tendency to overcommit is serving her well, said Bobo, the Howard County executive from 1986 to 1990.

“More reading, more visits to art galleries, more time for friends … and no joining boards or commissions” are some of Bobo’s current rules to live by.

Those choices allow her to do things her own way and at her own pace, writing a monthly blog about life and recording 30-minute podcasts at Howard Community College in which she interviews local movers and shakers.

Bobo has twice interviewed Willie Flowers, president of the NAACP Maryland State Conference, and they are discussing working together on issues of race and reconciliation.

Flowers, who is also completing his term as president of the Howard County Branch of the NAACP, said he first connected with Bobo through the Little Patuxent Review, a literature and visual arts journal based in Columbia.

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“Liz has learned from the past and has an understanding of what I’m trying to do,” Flowers said. “She isn’t offended by the conversation and she’s open to change for the betterment of the community.”

Looking back at her years in public service — especially as the first woman elected to the office of county executive in Maryland — Bobo said what she accomplished “seems like a bigger deal now than it did then.”

“I really had no sense that I was making history, though some people were telling me that at the time,” she said. “I never had any idea that I would end up in politics. None.”

Bobo was born in Baltimore where she was raised by a mother who never finished high school and a father who died young after a long struggle with Parkinson’s disease.

She married her first husband in 1966 at age 23 and the couple “just happened to buy a lot in Columbia Hills,” a neighborhood off Route 29. She was a stay-at-home mom, raising two children for five years, and attended St. John’s Catholic Church before it moved into the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center.

She took her time earning a bachelor’s degree in literature at the University of Maryland, College Park, alternating semesters in college with working full time to save for tuition. After six years of off-and-on attendance, she received her diploma in 1971.

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Liz Bobo, 76, at home in Columbia, reflects on her career as Howard County's first and only female county executive, and on her service in the Maryland House of Delegates. Bobo will be the featured speaker at the Howard County Historical Society’s annual meeting on Feb. 23 in Ellicott City, as part of the county's celebration of the Year of the Howard County Woman.
Liz Bobo, 76, at home in Columbia, reflects on her career as Howard County's first and only female county executive, and on her service in the Maryland House of Delegates. Bobo will be the featured speaker at the Howard County Historical Society’s annual meeting on Feb. 23 in Ellicott City, as part of the county's celebration of the Year of the Howard County Woman.(Amy Davis)

A life-changing turn came when Bobo discovered the Women’s Center, a meeting place where women could get together and discuss anything.

“I was so self-conscious and so shy,” she recalled of visiting the center, which operated out of Slayton House in the Wilde Lake Village Center from the late 1960s to early 1970s. “I just sat in a corner and hoped no one would notice me.”

The women who frequented the center opened her eyes to feminist issues.

“I hadn’t been aware that intelligent, well-educated women had trouble getting jobs in the workforce,” she said. “These women weren’t just complaining about discrimination; they wanted to do something about it.”

Her developing interest in community issues, such as the establishment of a hospital in the county, soon made her realize she wanted to seek public office.

By 1977, Bobo was appointed to the County Council to replace Dick Anderson, who had resigned and moved out of state. She won election to that seat the following year and served until 1986, when she became county executive for one term. She later served in the Maryland House of Delegates from 1994 to 2014.

Bobo said her mentors were Columbia founder James W. Rouse and state Sen. James Clark Jr., a farmer and community leader known for his pioneering work in land preservation.

The cutting-edge issues in the county in the late 1970s were “land use, the county’s growth rate and farms being eaten up by development,” she said.

“I made no secret of the fact that I thought the county was growing too much. Jim Clark put his heart and soul into saving farmland, and he supported me on legislation and gave me ideas,” she said.

Clark’s daughter, Martha Clark, who took over Clark’s Elioak Farm on Route 108 after her father died, said her father enjoyed the role of mentor and took it very seriously.

“My father is descended from a long line of strong, civic-minded women, so he was always supportive of women who wanted to improve their communities and run for office,” Martha Clark said.

While she was on the County Council, Bobo decided to go to law school “so I could be taken seriously as an organizer,” she said. She was admitted to the bar in 1982 and practiced law for two years before deciding it wasn’t for her.

“It was kind of amazing how I slipped into all of that,” she mused about her entry into public service.

“I knew how to distill a complicated issue and could handle public criticism and not fall apart,” she said. “But I really don’t know where that came from. It was almost like I was standing outside myself watching.”

Shawn Gladden, executive director of the historical society, said he’s “always wanted to do something on women’s contributions to county history, and it was a no-brainer that Liz should be the face of our initiatives.”

Gladden grew up in Columbia in the 1980s and knew then that Bobo was an important figure in county government.

“Liz began showing up to a lot of our historical society events and even interviewed me on her podcast,” he said. “We really connected due to her genuine interest in local history.”

Each Friday in 2020, a profile of one of 50 women who played significant roles in Howard County’s past will appear on the historical society’s Facebook page, Gladden noted.

The organization also will mount an exhibit on the county’s first women voters that will be displayed at the Howard County Fair in August. Other events will be listed at hchsmd.org.

Bobo said if there’s one thing she hopes the audience will take away from her talk on Sunday, it’s the importance of public policy.

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“Social, economic and environmental justice take work and require paying close attention,” she said, “even at the local level.”

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