Voters Were Angry, They Weren't Crazy


Let's face it, Susan Gray has got to be the Oliver North of Howard County politics.

The retired lieutenant colonel lost his bid for a U.S. Senate seat in Virginia, despite the strong possibility that he might ride to victory on a wave of anti-incumbent fervor, fueled in no small way by an opponent with skeletons cascading from his closet.

The one thing Susan Gray did not have going for her was a Chuck Robb. Otherwise, she seemed to be pushing many of the right buttons, energizing the race with her attacks on growth in Howard County.

She was angry, she kept insisting. And so were voters.

She knew what the problem was and how to solve it.

All that was left was the coronation, and some waited while holding their breaths. A county executive had only won re-election in Howard once before. But as one pundit put it in trying to explain why Ollie North was defeated last week, "The voters were angry but not crazy."

Ultimately, a lot of people thought that Ms. Gray was on to something when she talked about the perils of unbridled growth and its effects on the county's budget and quality of life.

But her constant, vitriolic hammering on the issue, caused her to be ultimately characterized as a one-issue nudge. People could simply not accept that things were as bad as the picture she painted.

Similarly, cautiousness could be seen in other election returns. Incumbents, far from being rousted in disgust, are being returned in surprising numbers.

Experience must count for something because not only was Mr. Ecker victorious, but so were all of the incumbent County Council members who sought re-election.

Voters rejected people they viewed as unknown or too radical regardless of party, turning thumbs down on the likes of slow-growth advocate John W. Taylor and newcomer Riaz Rana.

For the county school board, voters singled out a former school ** board member in Karen B. Campbell and a conservative who expressed traditional values, Stephen C. Bounds.

School board candidate Jamie M. Kendrick, the feisty college student, turned out to be too much of a risk to take, as was Delroy L. Cornick, the retired college professor who had made a less-than-enthusiastic bid.

Republicans, even the most conservative, did well, capturing two state Senate seats and four of eight seats in the county's delegation to the House of Delegates.

The state's attorney office went to Marna McLendon, a Republican who was well known in the county's legal circles, spoke tough on crime and promised reform.

But as voters were generally careful in how they crafted their ballots, they decided on taking at least one risk: Approving by an overwhelming margin the controversial zoning referendum that was backed by Ms. Gray.

That measure, it seems, offered a simplistic solution to whatever growth problems the county seemed to have, giving voters the right to petition zoning decisions made by the County Council when it sits as the Zoning Board.

The opposition -- an impressive cross-section of county business and civic organizations -- tried nearly everything to defeat the measure, including commercials that portrayed slow-growth advocates such as Ms. Gray as Johnny-come-latelies who wanted to close the door on Howard County's progress.

In the end, even Mr. Ecker never offered a compelling reason to defeat the ballot question. That's too bad, because ultimately residents may come to rue the day they approved this measure.

Council members are already predicting that long-range planning will become a thing of the past in Howard, because they will be disinclined to propose regional plans that are likely to fail because of one, isolated project. Instead, piecemeal rezoning will become the preferred method, eliminating the possibility of planning that is aimed at benefiting the entire county with a mind toward Howard's position in the region. This change could impact the growth of jobs as well as affordable housing.

That's a shame because there was still opportunity to reform the county's zoning system during charter review, which was slated to begin next year.

But voters weren't convinced that any changes would ultimately be made, and decided to take a chance on the zoning referendum.

Like that pundit said, "The voters were angry but not crazy."

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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