Democrats cross to vote for incumbent GOP's Ecker easily defeats Gray Zoning amendment approved; Republicans control council with 3 of 5 seats ELECTION 1994


Incumbent Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker trounced Democratic challenger Susan B. Gray in yesterday's election, but a major change in county zoning procedures that she promoted was approved overwhelmingly.

Republicans also took three of five seats in County Council, giving the GOP control of both the executive's office and the council for the first time in county history.

Mr. Ecker -- only the second county executive ever to win re-election in Howard -- thanked Democrats for crossing party lines in droves to vote for him. He ran a well-financed campaign on the theme of measured growth, a campaign heavily backed by area developers.

Like Mr. Ecker, GOP council incumbents Darrel Drown and Charles C. Feaga triumphed by 2-to-1 margins. Another Republican, Dennis Schrader, who narrowly missed election four years ago, won with 53 percent of the vote.

The Democrats won two council seats in Columbia, where they have a strong advantage in voter registration. Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, a three-term council incumbent, took 59 percent of the vote, and Democrat Mary C. Lorsung, longtime civic activist, won with 57 percent.

Voter turnout was particularly high, 67 percent vs. the county average of 55 percent.

Voters approved a zoning amendment that was opposed by Mr. Ecker and all five elected council members. The amendment gives the executive a veto over zoning decisions, makes zoning decisions subject to voter referendums and may have long-term repercussions for planned developments in the county.

Question B, as the amendment was labeled on the ballot, "gives people more control" in the zoning process, "but it effectively eliminates long-range planning," said Mr. Drown.

"We will have piecemeal zoning from here on out. I think the voters are going to be very surprised at the effect of this," he said.

Several civic groups -- including the League of Women Voters and the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People -- opposed Ms. Gray's amendment, fearing small groups of people could block zoning changes.

Mr. Schrader said one of the first things the new council will do is "look at the entire zoning process in an attempt to make it more user friendly."

Ms. Gray -- who said before the vote that passage of the zoning amendment was more important than her election -- seemed at a loss last night to explain why she, close ally John W. Taylor and a heavy-spending GOP council candidate, Riaz Rana, lost by such large margins.

"I think people didn't know I was the author" of Question B, Ms. Gray said.

Mr. Ecker "basically ran on a slow-growth platform" using thousands of dollars worth of advertising, Ms. Gray added. "There is simply no way to counter it."

Fulton resident Peter Owswald, a leading proponent of Question B, said it passed because "we put a proposition before people and people could make sense of it. . . . But some of the candidates [supporting the measure] were assassinated in the press."

Mr. Ecker thanked Democrats who supported him, especially former state Senate President James Clark Jr. and former County Administrator Buddy Roogow, who formed Democrats for Ecker.

"I couldn't have done it without them," Mr. Ecker told supporters. "In fact none of [the Republican winners] could have succeed without Democratic help."

Voter Steve Beall of Clary's Forest in Columbia seemed to sum up the feelings of many of the Democrats among Howard's 71,220 voters yesterday.

"Howard County has been trying to live with growth for years," he said. "But the real issue in the county executive race was one of competence. The Republican has done a real good job, and I'm crossing party lines to support him."

Mr. Ecker said his victory shows that people are "satisfied and proud of what I did and that I am someone they trust to lead the county in the next four years."

Mr. Schrader, who beat back a council challenge from Democrat Charles A. Acquard, former chairman of the Columbia Council, said his victory was based more on forming coalitions with people rather than on party politics.

"We've been working real hard," he said. "We reached out and touched people in the community."

Incumbent Republicans Drown and Feaga said their victories showed that they have a high level of trust among their constituents. "I didn't vote for everything" that Republicans wanted, Mr. Drown said. "People appreciate that. They know they can trust me to vote in what I believe."

Mr. Feaga said he was surprised by his margin of victory. "It was a very difficult campaign," he said. "I stayed straight and did not respond with negativity."

Democrat Mary Lorsung said she was pleased she overcame a much better-financed opponent, Mr. Rana. He poured $55,000 of his own money into the campaign.

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