THREE summers ago, nobody gave Charles (Chuck) Ecker much of a chance. A nice guy, agreed. And competent, too. As Howard County's longtime deputy school superintendent, he had helped run one of the state's best school systems.
But county executive material? Somebody who could unseat the Democrats' entrenched incumbent, Elizabeth (Liz) Bobo? No way! Mr. Ecker had little money and even less formal political experience. Mrs. Bobo had amassed tons of money, knew how to run a campaign and had political operatives busily toiling in her Ellicott City offices.
Surprise! Playing to an electorate whose mood was to throw the rascals out and hold the line on taxes, the Republican Mr. Ecker scored an improbable upset.
Now, a rematch is in sight. Mrs. Bobo's leaving a top Schaefer administration job with almost $50,000 unspent from her 1990 campaign, and she's making noises about regaining her former office.
But by now Mr. Ecker's practically a shoo-in for re-election. As county executive, he's kept down the size of government, maintained services and polished his image as a folksy, friendly, highly accessible non-politician. A self-effacing but sharp-as-a-tack Ph.D. who still says "bidness" instead of "business," he's a common-sense manager seemingly driven by interest in people, not ideology or political advancement.
Mr. Ecker's persona and performance have not gone unnoticed. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, D-2nd, and Anne Arundel County Executive Robert Neall, the top two Republican possibilities for governor in 1994, have come a-courtin'. Across their dinner tables in recent days, Mr. Ecker has been the recipient of running-mate offers.
Mr. Ecker would make an ideal second fiddle. He would wear well on the campaign trail, both among young suburbanites like his constituents in Howard and among old-time Marylanders, with whom his rural dialect fits in perfectly -- a Republican cut from Louis Goldstein cloth.
A Republican governor confronting a legislature controlled by Democrats would need a lieutenant governor able to win over the state's conservative-to-moderate "swing" Democrats. Besides, Mr. Ecker likes going down to Annapolis, prefers to do the county's lobbying himself and has been effective in a county almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.
There's only one problem. Mr. Ecker probably will continue to spurn Mrs. Bentley and Mr. Neall to run for another term.
The most intriguing aspect of the Ecker story is how unspoiled an office-holder he's been, and the curious byproduct of that facet of his personality.
Mr. Ecker still takes citizen calls at home. If he's not in, he calls back. If he's in and can't talk, he arranges office appointments. The county's moneyed political interests haven't made campaign contributions to gain entree. They haven't needed to. It's the way the system should work. It's not the way it operated under his predecessor.
If Mrs. Bobo enters the county executive race, more money will flow in Mr. Ecker's direction. But even if it doesn't, it's probably not that important. There's a general sense of satisfaction with Mr. Ecker that cuts across the political spectrum. And in Howard County it's hard to spend a great deal on a campaign even if you have it. Buying Washington media is too expensive, and, because most Howard Countians are oriented to the District of Columbia, what's spent on Baltimore media is generally wasted.
This race, like others in Howard County, will turn more on the candidates' grass-roots organizations, and that's what candidate Ecker built up in 1990.
Mr. Ecker has alienated some in the county, especially teachers. But so far, it has not provided a sufficient opening for most Democrats contemplating a challenge. He's scared off the most credible of them -- people like Del. Virginia Thomas and County Council members Paul Farragut and C. Vernon Gray.
Our bet is that a hard-campaigning Chuck Ecker will roll on to a second term. Then, in 1998, he'll probably bow out of public life, having capped his career as the head of a county he's served most of his working life.
Bruce L. Bortz is editor of Maryland Report newsletter. He writes here on alternate Thursdays.