Council incumbent wakes from campaign lethargy


Three-term incumbent C. Vernon Gray, who had no opposition four years ago, seemed so certain of re-election that until last month, he appeared to be sleepwalking through his campaign for re-election to the County Council.

Even the June 8 fund-raiser where the council chairman announced his intention to seek a fourth term seemed designed more to promote gubernatorial candidate Parris N. Glendening than himself.

Mr. Gray is asleep no longer. Stirred by the two Republicans and Democrat who have entered the race and are campaigning hard to take his council seat away from him, Mr. Gray is giving rousing political speeches in public appearances that highlight his 12-year record as a council member.

"I took on the powerful tobacco lobby and beat them," he told the Columbia Democratic Club last week before its endorsement of his candidacy. "I took on . . . mobile home park owners and won."

Two things seem to have awakened Mr. Gray from his campaign lethargy.

Evelyn L. Tanner, the former Board of Appeals chairwoman who switched parties to run against him, charged that Mr. Gray has been on the council too long. Former Planning Board Chairwoman Kathryn Mann, a member of the local Democratic Central Committee who is running against him in the primary, revealed that Mr. Gray still owed $8,000 to the Laurel Racing Association for a 1989 fund-raiser.

Mr. Gray has since settled the account, but Ms. Mann said that has not changed things. "He still had the free use of $8,000 for five years," she said.

Stung momentarily, Mr. Gray has come out swinging. He bragged about his proudest accomplishments in the past four years -- sponsorship of the toughest public smoking ban on the East Coast and of a bill forbidding trailer park owners from exacting security deposits retroactively from their tenants -- and about his service to his constituents.

"There are three aspects of constituent service," he said. "The first and most important is helping people negotiate the county bureaucracy. Having experienced that bureaucracy as a nonelected official, I understand where people are coming from. I can identify and have empathy in their uphill struggle to achieve things."

His constituent work helped the Montgomery Run neighborhood get a traffic light at the entrance to their community, forced developers to replace trees bordering the Glenmar neighborhood, enabled Kendall Ridge residents to keep their Washington phone lines without having to pay hundreds of dollars extra, helped slow rent increases for mobile home owners and helped preserve old St. Mary's cemetery, Mr. Gray said.

In addition, he has been "more than any other council member, an access point for the homeless, the jobless, those who need a place to live and those who have difficulty with the police," he said.

Mr. Gray said he also has been successful in the second part of constituent service -- "addressing public policy concerns in the areas of health and education." He pointed to his anti-smoking legislation, and to his support for public education.

"Because of my relationship with the governor, I was able to lobby for additional school funding," he said.

The third part of constituent service, he said, is "legislative oversight -- making government more efficient and economical." He pointed to his sponsorship of legislation to overhaul the county purchasing practices "to create a fairer and more competitive procurement system."

Mr. Gray said he is seeking a fourth term on the council because "there are some things I really want to do."

He said he wants to keep pressure on the school system to assure that older schools have the same equipment as newer ones and that teachers have enough aides and guidance counselors to help deal with the disabled students that are moved into their classrooms. He also would like to create a task force to address the health concerns of disabled students.

Mr. Gray also wants a panel to review county procedures.

"We have many redundant, unnecessary regulations that make it difficult for our citizens," he said. "We need to look at how to address particular problems other than in bits and pieces. There's a lot of deadwood in the code and it needs to be updated -- that's another formidable task."

Long term, Mr. Gray is looking at ways to expand the county's economic base. The county is too dependent on residential taxes and does not have a diverse enough political economy, he said.

"I pride myself on being as responsive and accessible as I can be," Mr. Gray said. "It is the hallmark of what I'm trying to achieve."

Ms. Tanner, who is running against Gary Prestianni in the Republican primary, appears unimpressed. "If there were more accountability and accessibility [demanded of council members], voters would not feel so disenfranchised," she said when announcing her campaign.

Asked directly if she were talking about Mr. Gray, Ms. Tanner said she was not. "Dr. Gray is a good person," she said, "but I think it's time for a change. If he wins again, he will have been on the council 16 years. The voters need a change."

Mr. Gray hopes not. "From election to election, you never know what stirs the electorate," he said. "It is important to let people know how, as best you can, what you can do and what you have done.

"I'm hoping many are already aware of what I've done to serve the community."

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