Redistricting gives the edge to Democrats


If either C. Vernon Gray or Mary Lorsung lose in Tuesday's County Council election, it will be the political story of the year in Howard County: Both Columbia Democrats are expected to win -- and win big.

But forecasting the other three council races is not so simple.

Before council lines were redrawn for this election, it appeared that power on the council might shift to Republicans this year.

Redistricting not only changed that perception -- Democrats have overwhelmingly superior numbers in three districts and a decided edge in four -- it's even conceivable that the council again could become wholly Democratic.

The last time that happened was in 1982, when council candidates were elected at large, rather than by district, as they are now.

This time, if Democrats end up dominating the five-member council, or just retain their 3-to-2 edge, don't look for radical changes in county policies -- unless challenger Susan B. Gray unseats Charles I. Ecker and becomes county executive.

The irony is that Ms. Gray is running as a Democrat and Mr. Ecker as a Republican, underscoring how little party affiliation could mean within the council.

"The County Council has very little power," says Democrat Angela Beltram, a former councilwoman. "It's the relationship with the county executive that's important."

"If [Mr. Ecker] wins, things will not change much," Ms. Beltram said. "If [Ms. Gray] wins, the newly elected council will eventually figure out what happened and where they have to go."

Ms. Gray, the Democratic nominee for county executive, agrees. She doesn't care about having a Democratic majority in the council. She wants a body that listens to the slow-growth views of her supporters and follows them.

"The key is going to be more personality" than party, Ms. Gray says. "There is not a hill of beans worth of difference in terms of Republicans and Democrats. They are just labels."

In much the same vein, Mr. Ecker, the Republican incumbent, says he would prefer a Republican majority on the council but believes he can also work with a Democratic majority.

"I've proven I can work with people [of different persuasions] and I worked with the County Council [the last four years] when I did not have a majority," he says.

Indeed, the Democrat-controlled council supported the showpieces of his administration -- austere budgets and legislation limiting development -- without dissent.

"All you need is three votes" to control the council, Ms. Beltram says. "It's not always the same three. It is up to the executive to persuade."

A check of the voting records of past councils shows that they vote together on most things, regardless of party. And when the council is split, it's seldom along party lines.

Party distinctions may not matter once council members get elected, but they are crucial in electioneering -- particularly in districts with lopsided voter-registration patterns.

For example, the reason that Democrats Gray and Lorsung are (( heavy favorites in their races is that their two Columbia-area districts are both overwhelmingly Democratic.

Even if Evelyn Tanner, Mr. Gray's Republican challenger in east Columbia, holds on to all her votes in the primary and gains all the votes for her GOP primary opponent and many of the votes for Mr. Gray's Democratic primary opponent, she would still lose, an examination of the primary vote shows.

Similarly, assuming Republican Riaz Rana -- Ms. Lorsung's challenger -- retains his votes and gains those of his GOP primary opponents, he still would need Democratic defections to just have a fighting chance.

The other Republican council candidates also face tough races.

* The redistricting of incumbent Darrel Drown's Elkridge-Ellicott City council district gave him a predominantly Democratic district in which more than 40 percent of the voters are new to him, taking away from him much of the power of incumbency.

Nevertheless, Mr. Drown faced a similar uphill battle in 1990 and handily ousted an Democratic incumbent. And some observers believe he could do it again in his race with George L. Layman, his Democratic challenger.

* In the race for the western county seat on the council, Republican Charles C. Feaga is in a bitter fight with Democratic John W. Taylor -- a fight in which Mr. Taylor is benefiting from his link with Ms. Gray.

But Mr. Feaga beat Mr. Taylor in the 1990 GOP primary. And in past elections, large numbers of Democrats have crossed party lines to vote for Mr. Feaga.

* The numbers in the south Columbia, Savage and north Laurel district also overwhelmingly favor Democrat Charles Lee Acquard over GOP challenger Dennis Schrader.

Mr. Schrader, who narrowly lost to incumbent Shane Pendergrass four years ago, will need help from Democrats. But in the past, he has drawn significant crossover voting.

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