Ecker weighs strategy for surprise foe


County Executive Charles I. Ecker said yesterday that he does not plan "to go negative" against Democratic challenger Susan Gray but has not decided whether to portray her as a one-issue candidate who concentrates on slowing the county's growth.

"She appears to be, but I just don't know yet," said Mr. Ecker, who was unopposed for the Republican nomination.

Ms. Gray has been a frequent nemesis of the Ecker administration and the County Council, especially over zoning matters.

She sued the county unsuccessfully in an attempt to overturn the 1990 General Plan and the recently completed comprehensive rezoning. She succeeded in helping get a voter petition on the ballot this fall that could change the way the county enacts its general plan and does comprehensive rezoning.

Mr. Ecker and the Republicans had expected to face former Democratic Central Committee Chairwoman Sue-Ellen Hantman this fall. Ms. Hantman had been recruited by the Central Committee and was the choice of party regulars, but she lost by 6 percentage points Tuesday.

Mr. Ecker said the fact that he is instead running against Ms. Gray does not alter his strategy.

"I have the same game plan," he said. "I have a tough race, and I am going to run as hard as I can. I am not a shoo-in. Anything can happen."

That thought scares most Republicans. With county voter registration favoring Democrats by about 5 to 2, every GOP candidate is going to need help from Democrats and independents to win in November.

Although Ms. Gray's views on land use are well known to county government watchers, she is a political enigma, even to many Democrats. Only one Democratic candidate for the County Council has embraced her candidacy. Three others have expressed reservations about supporting her.

Mr. Ecker may be reluctant to portray Ms. Gray as a one-dimensional candidate, but other Republicans are not.

"If you handed Ms. Gray a [county] budget book, she would have no idea where to begin," said incumbent Republican Councilman Darrel Drown, who is facing Board of Appeals Chairman George L. Layman in the race for the Elkridge-Ellicott City seat on the County Council. "Chuck Ecker knows how to deal with budgets -- keeping taxes low and the economy in forward motion. He knows the shape of the community. I am very happy to be running with Chuck."

Charles C. Feaga, the other Republican incumbent seeking re-election on the council, said Ms. Gray's emergence as the Democratic Party's standard-bearer "certainly makes it a tougher race" for him in western Howard County, where he is vying with John W. Taylor, a close ally and enthusiastic supporter of Ms. Gray. Mr. Taylor, running as Republican, lost to Mr. Feaga four years ago.

Mr. Feaga said he believes Ms. Gray is giving people misinformation about rapid growth in the western part of the county.

"There is absolutely no increase in density in [the recently completed] comprehensive rezoning" of western Howard County, Mr. Feaga said. "I get the feeling people simply are not told the truth. People are surprised when they call the Department of Planning and Zoning or Public works and get the real story. . . . Susan Gray and John Taylor have only one issue. It's always growth."

Republican Dennis Schrader, who is running against Democrat Charles Acquard for the south Columbia-Savage-North Laurel seat on the council, said he is more concerned about local issues than he is about Ms. Gray's candidacy. He cited as important issues the professional football stadium proposed for Laurel, which he opposes, and finding ways to meet the needs of an aging senior population.

Mr. Schrader said Mr. Ecker has done "a terrific job in a lot of areas: schools, crime and being fiscally responsible in a difficult financial time. If people see Chuck as the leader he has been, he will be returned to office."

Republican Evelyn L. Tanner, who is running against Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray for the district that represents East Columbia, said she hasn't thought much about how Ms. Gray's candidacy might affect her campaign. "I'm just focusing in on Vernon," she said.

As for Mr. Ecker, Ms. Tanner said she thinks he has "very strong support" in her district and that supporters are confident he can win re-election.

Riaz H. Rana, who defeated an Ecker-backed candidate for the GOP nomination in the district that includes West Columbia, said he doesn't see Ms. Gray's victory as having any consequences in his race against Mary C. Lorsung.

"I do my own thinking. . . . I don't have to rely on Ms. Gray," he said. "It's news to me that her success might bring in underdogs."

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