Howard County Republicans came out of the closet to join forces with the swirling anti-incumbency movement to put Charles I. Ecker on the edge of a stunning defeat of Democratic County Executive Elizabeth Bobo.
In the unofficial tally last night, Republican Ecker, a retired deputy superintendent of schools, finished 244 votes ahead of Bobo, previously thought to be virtually untouchable. He had 25,637 votes to Bobo's 25,393, 50.2 percent to 49.8 percent.
The figures are not final, however. County Board of Elections supervisor Barbara Feaga said 1,825 absentee ballots have been distributed, and the deadline for returning them was 4 p.m. today. All but ballots sent overseas will be counted tomorrow.
Ecker basked in the glow of his apparent victory last night during a boisterous Republican Party celebration at the Holiday Inn in Jessup, but he reminded supporters that the margin was thin, and that the tally won't be official until absentee ballots are counted.
"I think we have to be a little subdued until they count the absentee ballots," Ecker told the frenzied crowd that celebrated his and other other key Republican victories in countywide and state races. "And I plan to be there to make sure they count them right."
Meanwhile, the atmosphere was subdued at Kahler Hall in Columbia, where stunned and confused Democrats tried to figure out the surprising defeat of Bobo and other incumbents.
Bobo strained to smile as she approached the podium to an ovation that lacked the exuberant cheers of the Holiday Inn crowd. She stopped short of conceding defeat, but Bobo acknowledged that she faced the end of her reign as head of county government.
She sought to console other incumbent Democrats who lost, including Councilwoman Angela Beltram, D-2nd, state Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, D-14th, Del. William C. Bevan, D-13B, and Clerk C. Merritt Pumphrey. She told them she felt empathy for their disappointment.
"I am keenly aware that I may be facing a similar possible disappointment," Bobo said. "I wouldn't trade anything for the opportunity I've had to serve these four years as Howard County executive."
As she spoke, her campaign manager cried. So did Del. Virginia Thomas, D-13A, whose re-election was tarnished by the defeat of her fellow party members. She touched Bobo on the shoulder as the two stood on the platform with other Democratic candidates and said, "You're going to be OK," referring to Bobo's slim chance of winning with the uncounted votes.
"This is not a happy victory for me," Thomas said.
The Ecker victory came as a complete shock to Howard Democrats, who believed that their party was strong with Bobo, the first female county executive in Maryland, at the helm. But Bobo fell victim to a surging Republican Party and, perhaps, the same anti-incumbency sentiment that struck down Sidney Kramer from his county executive seat in neighboring Montgomery County in September's primary.
Howard and Montgomery are two of the most affluent counties in the nation and both have been engrossed in heated debate on how to control growth. Kramer absorbed the blame for Montgomery's growth problems, as Bobo apparently has in Howard.
Bobo proposed her 1990 general plan to direct growth over the next 20 years, but the document was a compromise package that pleased few residents.
"I think there was a lot of anti-Bobo sentiment or a lot of anti-incumbent sentiment or a combination of both," Ecker said. "I think the Republican Party came out in numbers today."
But if voters blamed Bobo for the county's growth problems, those in Ellicott City did not credit Beltram for being county government's most vocal opponent of growth. Republican Darrell Drown gained 58 percent of the vote to defeat her, 7,633 to 5,610, in a rematch of their 1986 contest.
"Winning sure beats losing -- by a long, long, long shot," Drown said at the Republican celebration. Ironically, he said one of the reasons for his victory was growth control.
In the other County Council races, incumbent Republican Charles Feaga won a surprisingly easy victory with 62 percent of the vote to spoil Democrat Susan Scheidt's bid in District 5, 6,429 to 3,906; incumbent Democrat Chairwoman Shane Pendergrass won 51 percent of the tally to squeak past Republican Dennis Schrader in District 1, 5,313 to 5,028; and incumbent Paul Farragut won easily over Republican Michael Deets in District 4, gaining 66 percent of the vote in a 5,623 to 2,863 romp. C. Vernon Gray was unopposed in District 3.
State's Attorney William Hymes survived a challenge from Republican William Kinlein, receiving 56 percent of the vote to win, 26,146 to 20,930, but Pumphrey was defeated after serving 22 years as clerk by Republican Margaret Rappaport, who took 57 percent of the vote in a 27,032 to 20,699 victory.
Councilman Gray, who said he was stunned by the election, suggested that the Democrats' poor showing in Howard County could be traced to the contentious deficit-cutting budget negotiations in Congress that angered many Americans. "What happened in Congress left a bitter taste in people's mouths and it filtered down to the local level," he said.
James B. Kraft, the county's former Democratic Party chairman who lost a bid for the House of Delegates in District 14B, added that Democrats in Howard are facing a stronger Republican Party after dominating politics for years.
"For a lot of years, a lot of people have been registering Democrat because of their family or whatever, but at heart they are Republicans," Kraft said.
Democrats traditionally have enjoyed an advantage in registration over Republicans in Howard County for years, but that gap has narrowed in recent years as GOP registration has increased substantially.
Ecker is symbolic of that movement. He was a lifelong Democrat who switched his party affiliation last year, saying his philosophy always had been more closely aligned to the GOP. Now, he and the Republican Party are on the verge of taking control of the county.