Losing the element of surprise

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For the last 13 years, Howard County Republicans have relied on party unity and the element of surprise to draw even with local Democrats.

But after stunning victories in 1990 and political dominance in 1994, the Republicans are a surprise no longer. And now, their unity may be imperiled.

The 1998 primary elections are likely -- for the first time -- to pit Howard Republican office-holders against each other. GOP officials think they can survive the head-to-head competition without becoming embittered as county Democrats have become after their primaries.

But some Republicans have nagging doubts.

"Hopefully, we're smart enough that it won't happen to us" in 1998, says County Councilman Darrel Drown of Ellicott City. "I hope it won't happen for 20 years. But with all the new people joining the party, it's going to happen somewhere down the line."

Republicans continue to narrow the county voter-registration gap between themselves and Democrats. What was nearly a 2-to-1 Democratic majority a decade ago has dwindled now to only 1.3 Democrats for every Republican, a ratio that GOP leaders say gives them a good shot at winning any race.

Meanwhile, county Democrats remain fragmented and leaderless as they look toward the 1998 elections -- despite their majority in party registrations.

"Running as a Republican is increasingly tantamount to election," says Carol A. Arscott, former chairwoman of the local GOP central committee. "Our challenge now is not to let $H [divisiveness] happen. I'm not saying it's going to be easy."

Publicly at least, top GOP officials insist that the party remains unified and that a wealth of potential candidates is a sign of strength.

"We were down so long and have worked together so closely that I doubt a primary would divide us," says Allan H. Kittleman, the local GOP central committee chairman.

Mr. Drown agrees. "We have been friends, comrades, and put differences aside so long that we will not fall apart," he says. "This core group of Republicans has been through too much."

As someone strongly considering a run for county executive, Mr. Drown believes he is likely to face another office-holder in 1998 -- Del. Robert L. Flanagan of west Columbia. There will "absolutely be a primary fight" within the GOP in the county executive's race, Mr. Drown says.

It did not appear that way earlier this year when some Republicans were saying privately that GOP leaders had agreed to support Mr. Flanagan and that other Republican hopefuls had agreed to step aside. But now they're talking differently, as serting that no deal has been cut within the GOP for 1998.

Mr. Flanagan himself says he never heard of any plan to anoint him as the party's standard-bearer, adding that it's too early to say what he will do next year or in 1998.

"I will continue to be an active Republican -- that much I know," he says. "If I am to be a leader, I will rise and fall on my ideas -- how well I articulate them and how well they are received by voters."

County Executive Charles I. Ecker, who led the Republican revolution in Howard in 1990, says he intends to remain neutral. "More than likely, I would not support anyone in the primary," Mr. Ecker says. "But I would work very hard in the general election for the winner."

Mr. Drown says he believes that that will be true of all Republicans. "We will not fall apart," he says. "We will continue to support each other" after the primaries.

Delegate Flanagan says essentially the same thing. "We as a party are in a wonderful position," he says. "We have worked together cohesively and we have worked hard. . . . I look at the personalities involved and I know we will continue to be a cohesive group."

Ms. Arscott is so certain the party will not splinter that she predicts "a dynasty" of GOP dominance in holding the county's top job.

Not only that, she welcomes primary challenges. "A hotly contested Republican primary -- that's a good problem to have," she says.

Not everyone agrees. "Personally, I feel that we should not have it set up so that we would lose any incumbent officials in a primary," says Mr. Ecker. He prefers that the local GOP central committee line up candidates instead.

Michael Deets, who ran for the County Council from west Columbia in 1990 and is a candidate-in-waiting for 1998, wants to avoid an intraparty fight, too.

"It is a little premature for us to have that kind of [office-holder] competition" in primary races, he says. "Hopefully, we can postpone that sort of competition for a little while -- at least until after the 1998 election."

It may be too late, however. Republican elected officials may work hard at maintaining unity in their monthly meetings, but the choosing of sides between Mr. Drown and Mr. Flanagan appears to have begun already -- in subtle ways.

Take council Chairman Charles C. Feaga of West Friendship, who leans toward Mr. Drown.

When asked about the 1998 county executive race, he says, "There are state issues and county issues. I would hope the people who emphasize them would stay within those areas, if possible." Mr. Feaga says he might even get into the race himself if he doesn't like those lining up for the county executive's office.

And when Del. John S. Morgan is asked about the 1998 county executive's race, the Laurel Republican instead names certain county lawmakers -- including Mr. Flanagan but not Mr. Drown -- who will become future leaders in the state GOP.

"Eventually, myself, Bob Flanagan, [State Sen.] Marty [Madden] and [County Councilman] Dennis Schrader . . . will be recognized as leaders in the state Republican Party," he says. "It's not a difficult prediction to make because we are almost there now."

Ms. Arscott is sure Howard Republicans will sort out these differences before the next county election. "Most voters agree with us on the issues or they wouldn't be voting for us," she says. "You can have the smartest campaign on earth and still lose if you don't have the right message."

But Mr. Schrader, though optimistic about 1998, sounds a note of caution. "I don't believe for a moment that the Democrats are not a powerful force in Howard County," he says. "There is still a very healthy two-party system in Howard County. We as Republicans have got to learn how to be even more competitive.

"We've finally got the horse back in the barn, but we're not out of the woods yet. We now have the daunting responsibility of leading."

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