In June, when Howard County's Democrats didn't have a candidate to oppose Republican incumbent County Executive Charles I. Ecker, one of their stalwarts said not to worry:
"There is still time for someone to enter the race and win -- even against a popular incumbent," he counseled.
That's exactly what slow-growth advocate Susan B. Gray hopes to do today -- after entering the race two minutes before the filing deadline on July 5 and then knocking off the party's hand-picked favorite in surprisingly easy fashion in the September primary.
Ever since that stunning win, Ms. Gray has dominated this election -- not only with her slow-growth agenda but with her campaign for Question B, a proposed charter amendment that would change the zoning process.
The Ecker-Gray contest is one of 26 local contests Howard County voters will decide today, from races for General Assembly seats to those for such little-noticed county offices as the register of wills.
With a forecast of fair skies and temperatures in the mid-60s, county election officials are predicting a 60 percent voter turnout.
In an election year marked by negative ads and a good deal of personal venom, Howard County candidates continued sniping at each other right up to the last minute yesterday.
Take the bitter contest for the District 13 Senate seat between House of Delegates colleagues Virginia M. Thomas and Martin G. Madden.
Over the weekend, Mr. Madden, a Republican, lambasted Ms. Thomas, a Democrat, in a direct-mail piece for attending sporting events with powerful Annapolis lobbyists.
Ms. Thomas accused Mr. Madden yesterday of "throwing mud like we've never seen before" in a Howard County campaign, calling the last-week mailing "character assassination."
Even the Howard County police department had a last-minute campaign complaint.
Ms. Gray's supporters put up a large sign at Cedar Lane and Braeburn Road in Hickory Ridge that says "HO. CO. (Howard County) Police Endorse Susan Gray for County Executive."
The phrase, "Bite Back!" appears under a caricature of a frightened Mr. Ecker running from snapping jaws.
Police Chief James N. Robey emphatically rejected the sign as inaccurate. The department did not endorse Ms. Gray, only five of six executive members of the Howard County Police Officer's Association, according to a union spokesman.
The flap over the sign is not surprising. As it has gone down to the wire, the tone of this campaign season has worsened, says Carolyn "Casey" Willis, a Democratic House of Delegates hopeful in District 14B.
"The partisan backbiting must cease. It simply doesn't serve the people well," Ms. Willis said. "We need to find common ground to solve problems."
But partisan politics is alive and well in Howard.
Four years ago, Republicans startled local Democrats by ousting seven incumbents from state and county offices -- even with Democratic superiority in voter registrations.
Now it's the Republicans who have to fend off challenges, and many of them are running in districts redrawn to protect Democratic incumbents and help Democratic challengers.
At center stage, however, has been the Ecker-Gray race and the charter amendment on zoning. What sets the race apart from previous executive contests is a clear choice provided Howard voters about the county's future.
Mr. Ecker says that "managed, controlled and directed growth" is essential to the county's economic health.
Ms. Gray says too much growth threatens Howard's quality of life and will cost $2 billion for roads, schools and services over the next 20 years.
She says passage of Question B -- the charter amendment she drafted to allow residents to put zoning decisions on the ballot and to permit the county executive to veto proposed zoning changes -- is essential.
The Sierra Club is supportive. But opponents -- including the League of Women Voters, the county chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the county Farm Bureau, the Columbia Association, the Chamber of Commerce and the Howard County Economic Forum -- have waged an intense media campaign against the proposed amendment.
Opponents' cable TV ads likened Question B's supporters to "that kid who never let anyone play in his tree fort."
rTC Supporters of the proposal said the ads were illegal because they didn't include a tag line telling who took responsibility for them.
Cable TV battleground
With few voters turning out for numerous political forums, cable TV ads became the battleground of choice for even County Council -- at the bargain price of $6 per 30-second spot.
Thousands of ads of variable quality thrust candidates' names and faces before potential voters over and over again.
Partly to pay for the ads, county candidates went on a fund-raising binge.
Mr. Ecker led the way, raising $248,000 since 1990, three times more than in his last campaign and most of it coming from developers and business interests backing his sustained-growth position.
And, for the first time this year, voters saw major campaigns that were largely self-financed.
Retired business executive Riaz Rana refused to accept contributions from the public but poured $55,000 into his west Columbia council race against Democrat Mary C. Lorsung.
Democrat Dario J. Broccolino, running against Republican Marna McLendon for state's attorney, contributed $25,000 to his campaign -- more than 80 percent of his campaign funds -- and expected to donate $20,000 more in his final push.
The growth issue dominating the Ecker-Gray race spilled over into some County Council races.
That was especially the case in western Howard County, where Democrat John W. Taylor, a close supporter of Ms. Gray, is again challenging two-term incumbent Republican Charles C. Feaga.
Mr. Taylor, running as a Republican four years ago, lost to Mr. Feaga in the primary, but he is hoping his ties to Ms. Gray will enable him to prevail this year.
The real venom has been in the District 13 state Senate race, where Ms. Thomas and Mr. Madden are vying to move up to the Senate this year after serving together in the House of Delegates for four years.
Environmental groups are backing Mr. Madden, but Ms. Thomas says she has had 52 bills enacted into law vs. three for Mr. Madden. Democratic state Sen. Thomas M. Yeager, trounced by Ms. Thomas in the primary, added more spice by crossing party lines to support Mr. Madden.
The District 12 Senate race was hardly more polite.
Republican David P. Maier tried to get a state prosecutor to declare Democrat Edward J. Kasemeyer's candidacy illegal, saying Mr. Kasemeyer had not lived in the district long enough to represent it.
The prosecutor said Mr. Kasemeyer met the residency requirements.
Mr. Kasemeyer, representing western Howard County, was in line to become chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee until he was upset four years ago.
This year, he is running in a newly created district that includes west Columbia, southern Ellicott City, Elkridge and southwestern Baltimore County, and Mr. Maier claims Mr. Kasemeyer is not familiar with that area.
Howard's House of Delegates races include the return of former County Executive M. Elizabeth Bobo to politics as part of broad ** effort by Democrats to win back some of the five General Assembly seats from Howard County held by Republicans.
Ms. Bobo, who held elective office in the county from 1978 until her surprise loss to Mr. Ecker four years ago, pits her experience against Republican Charlie Scott, a 21-year-old student at the University of Maryland, in the District 12B race in west Columbia and Elkridge.
Democrats Shane Pendergrass, a two-term County Council member, and Frank Turner, a former orphans' court judge, also are emphasizing experience in their 13A race against independent Arthur Reynolds and Republicans Michael Grasso and Kenneth Miller
In the Laurel area's District 13B, Democrat John Giannetti has accused incumbent Republican John S. Morgan of being lackadaisical about constituent service.
Mr. Morgan says he was heavily involved in the effort to keep out the Washington Redskins, who proposed building a stadium in Laurel.
In western Howard County, House Minority Whip Robert H. Kittleman and GOP running mate Robert L. Flannagan, fixtures in Annapolis the past eight years, are facing a stiff challenge from attorney Andrew Levy and civic activist Carolyn Willis.
The Democrats say Republicans have not accomplished much in Annapolis and that Mr. Kittleman's only success was a bill to establish the state fossil.
The two Republicans say they have fought tax increases and have brought the county added millions in school construction money.
Even the usually nonpartisan county school board race has been tinged by party politics this year.
Elkridge Democrat Jamie Kendrick, a 19-year-old contender for one of the two vacant seats, sent registered Democrats a letter saying he was their best hope of defeating Republican Stephen Bounds.
Former board member Karen Campbell, a Republican, and Democrat Delroy Cornick also are seeking seats on the five-member board.
Ms. Campbell said that bringing party politics into a usually nonpartisan race was not helpful.
"In a heated, partisan, personalized race, candidates run against opponents as opposed to running for the job," she said.
"The issues frequently get lost."