Heavy favorites dominate county executive races


With primary victories fading into memory, Baltimore-area county executive candidates face a fact of life that is daunting or comforting, depending on the view: Heavy favorites dominate three of four general election contests.

Only in Anne Arundel County, where a strong primary win boosted 51-year-old Councilman Theodore J. "Ted" Sophocleus to respectable odds against Republican nominee Robert R. Neall, a 42-year-old former state legislator, is a county executive campaign expected to produce the proverbial horse race.

Contests in Baltimore and Howard counties feature Democratic incumbents with demonstrated voter appeal. Baltimore County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen and Howard County Executive Elizabeth Bobo faced no primary opponents, and their Republican challengers are not nearly as well-known or -financed.

In Harford County, Delegate Eileen M. Rehrmann's 2-1 margin of victory over Councilwoman Barbara A. Risacher, D-District A, demonstrated why she will be hard to beat this fall. Her opponent, former Bel Air Mayor Geoffrey D. Close, is unknown in many parts of the county.

Nevertheless, few political pundits could have predicted that another well-entrenched incumbent county executive, Montgomery County's Sidney Kramer, would lose to Neal Potter, a 75-year-old council veteran. Mr. Potter's upset victory Tuesday was seen as a protest against the county's unchecked pattern of development.

"There clearly is an anti-incumbent feeling out there, and we think we can do to Liz Bobo what Neal Potter did to Sid Kramer," said Carol A. Arscott, who chairs the Republican Party in nearby Howard County.

Mr. Sophocleus' 8,000-vote margin of victory was greater than even he had expected.

"Six months ago, Neall was a 500-pound gorilla in this election, but my guess is that now it's anybody's game," said Dennis M. Callahan, the former Annapolis mayor who placed second in the race with 23 percent of the vote to Mr. Sophocleus' 41.2 percent. "I had no idea of the depth of Ted's support."

Jocular and unpretentious, Mr. Sophocleus, D-1st, a Linthicum pharmacist, stands in considerable contrast to Mr. Neall, a more tightly wound veteran of State House politics.

As if to demonstrate their contrasting images, Mr. Sophocleus drove a Midas camper to his election night party in a fire hall. Mr. Neall, a former banker, greeted guests in a banquet room hung with chandeliers.

"I can hold my own in a big business dinner, and I can hold my own with a hot dog at a ballgame," Mr. Sophocleus said. "I'm a more person, people-oriented guy. I don't think I know more than anybody else."

Not to be outdone, Mr. Neall reminded reporters last week that he ran his parents' general store in Davidsonville for 20 years. "I'm every bit as homespun and home-grown as Ted is," said Mr. Neall, who resigned this year as a vice president for the Johns Hopkins Health System.

The leading fund-raiser among all the candidates, Mr. Neall has DTC five full-time campaign staffers and, with the luxury of only token primary opposition, he has already reserved such things as billboard space and broadcast commercial time.

Mr. Sophocleus has no full-time staff, relying instead on a blitz of cable television ads and his extensive grass-roots connections.

"We're going to see a united Democratic front in this county," said Mr. Sophocleus, who has already been promised support from Mr. Callahan and Councilman Michael F. Gilligan, D-2nd, the second runner-up. "We've been out there for eight years. Where's Mr. Neall been for the last four?"

Meanwhile, the Neall campaign portrays its candidate as a fiscal surgeon better equipped for delicate budget-cutting than his opponent. Mr. Neall served on the House Appropriations Committee for 12 years.

"My opponent doesn't have a record when it comes to controlling government costs," Mr. Neall said.

Four years ago, Mr. Neall lost to Democrat Tom McMillen in a hard-fought 4th District congressional race, carrying his home county by 10,000 votes. Though Democrats outnumber Republicans by a margin of 3-to-2 in Anne Arundel County, there are 22 percent more registered Republicans and 5 percent fewer Democrats today than in 1986.

In Harford County, Mr. Close would seem to have only a slim chance of beating Mrs. Rehrmann, a veteran state legislator who bested Mrs. Risacher by a surprisingly large margin Tuesday.

Mrs. Rehrmann will enjoy the same advantages she held over Ms. Risacher: a well-known name, a lot of money, a well-organized campaign staff and some key endorsements.

But Republicans insist the race will not be a landslide. Though not widely known outside the county seat, Mr. Close enjoys a reputation as a tough campaigner and can claim seven years' experience as an executive.

"I don't think it will be another blowout," said Bel Air attorney Robert S. Lynch. "The Republicans haven't been heard from yet. Geoffrey has a chance."

Having seen the writing on the wall in Montgomery County, Howard County Executive Bobo said she plans to run a campaign that emphasizes her administration's efforts to "manage and slow growth as well as protect the environment."

She faces Republican Charles I. Ecker, a former deputy county superintendent of schools. Though he bested his primary opponent by a wide margin, Mr. Ecker acknowledges his underdog status. His first goal is to become better known.

"Ms. Bobo has been a poor manager and has been the cause of the growth mess and not the cure," said Mr. Ecker, who has already challenged the incumbent to a series of debates. "She has turned county government into a big bureaucracy that is not sensitive to the people."

Perhaps the longest shot of all is Roger Hayden, 45, Republican candidate for Baltimore County executive. A former president of the county school board, he is running against a vastly better-known and -financed Democrat in a county where 238,050 registered Democrats outnumber 89,385 Republicans by a nearly 3-to-1 ratio.

"We want people to decide on the issues, and not on how much money one candidate has spent," said Mr. Hayden, who wants the campaign to focus on taxes, growth and the efficiency of county government. "A lot of people are so dissatisfied, they'd just vote for anybody else [but Mr. Rasmussen]."

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