IF CHUCK ECKER hopes to become the Republican nominee for governor, he will have to overcome political forces in his own backyard.
Some of Ellen Sauerbrey's staunchest supporters live in Howard County. One of them, Del. Robert Flanagan, who represents District 14B in Ellicott City and western Howard County, says he is trying to dissuade the avuncular county executive from running.
Mr. Flanagan has his reasons: He was on the Sauerbrey bandwagon before it began to roll. He and fellow District 14B Del. Robert Kittleman helped convince Mrs. Sauerbrey to run, and they drew criticism for favoring her over Helen Bentley in the 1994 Republican gubernatorial primary election. He also was Mrs. Sauerbrey's lawyer in matters involving public financing laws in the primary race and in her narrow general election loss to Parris Glendening.
Another Howard connection to Mrs. Sauerbrey is Paul Rappaport, the former county police chief who was her running mate in 1994. He could again end up on Mrs. Sauerbrey's ticket as a candidate for lieutenant governor, although he may try to succeed Mr. Ecker as county executive.
Mrs. Sauerbrey's supporters here tell Mr. Ecker that he can't win because he doesn't have enough money or name recognition and that he shouldn't run because Mrs. Sauerbrey has earned the right to represent her party with her strong showing in 1994.
They seem to prefer a primary coronation to a campaign.
In the past, Republicans in Maryland have dreamed of having contested primaries, saying it would be a sign of the party's strength. Now Mrs. Sauerbrey's supporters fear an Ecker candidacy could weaken them.
"I'm a great admirer of Chuck," Mr. Flanagan says. "Sometimes in politics, through no fault of your own, the time is not right. In this case, the timing for Chuck isn't right."
Secretary of ed?
Mr. Flanagan says Mr. Ecker is one of the "talented Republicans" who could become part of a Sauerbrey administration. "He would make an excellent secretary of education," he says.
Mrs. Sauerbrey's Howard County supporters fear that an Ecker candidacy could damage their candidate. Mr. Ecker has built a reputation as a pragmatic, moderate Republican capable of building consensus with Democrats on various issues. He's a refreshing alternative to the more conservative Mrs. Sauerbrey, whose views are more along the lines of Newt Gingrich and the uncompromising freshmen Republicans in Congress. There are rumblings that Mr. Ecker could stifle Mrs. Sauerbrey's "growth." She could appeal as a more moderate candidate in Round Two against the governor, the speculation goes, but that would be impossible if Mr. Ecker occupies the middle ground in a primary.
The thought behind an Ecker candidacy is that he could rescue the state from an ultra-conservative fate.
A former Democrat, Mr. Ecker describes himself as a low-key "moderate Republican."
"My philosophy is to involve people," he says in his raspy voice, "to get two opposing parties together and come up with a mutually agreeable compromise."
He shies away from the personal attacks that are a trademark of political campaigns.
His thoughts on Sauerbrey? "Ellen's a fine person."
Only when pressed will he even criticize Mr. Glendening, whose numerous missteps have made him the state's easiest target.
Asked about his relationship with Mr. Glendening, he says, "I get along well with him."
Is Mr. Glendening doing a poor job? "Time will tell."
Is he a bad governor? "If he continues at the rate he's going, yes," Mr. Ecker said with a look of discomfort while sitting in his office.
As a candidate, he likely would portray himself as a good fiscal manager who led Howard County through a brutal recession by taking bold, unpopular steps to reduce expenses.
But to balance the budget, he also imposed a 14-cent property tax hike, increased user fees for recreation and implemented a controversial $125 annual trash tax. His fiscal decisions have brought anger and criticism from residents and county employees.
Still, Mr. Ecker remains a popular figure. If not for the county charter's two-term limit, he would be able to win a third term as county executive in a walk.
One of his biggest supporters, Republican County Councilman Charles C. Feaga, praises his handling of the county executive's job. But the enthusiasm dissipates when he talks about an Ecker gubernatorial campaign.
"I think Sauerbrey is a very, very strong contender. She believes in all the right things, and I think Chuck believes in all the right things," Mr. Feaga says. "I would encourage him to put together a committee and see what the strengths and weaknesses are, what the possibilities are."
Just the possibility that Mr. Ecker may run for governor would seem to be enough to stir excitement among Howard Republicans. But with Mrs. Sauerbrey having sewn up commitments from many local supporters, Mr. Ecker may have to look outside the county for enthusiasm.
Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.
Pub Date: 9/15/96