Ecker vs. Sauerbrey? Pragmatist vs. ideologue: 1998 Md. GOP primary would test party's conservative leanings.


GIVEN A CHOICE, Maryland voters prefer moderate Republicans who understand that politics is the art of the possible. Charles McC. Mathias. J. Glenn Beall Jr. Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin. Constance A. Morella. Wayne T. Gilchrest. Helen Delich Bentley. Over the years, they won elections because citizens in a heavily Democratic state liked their pragmatic approach to government.

Republican Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker is very much in that mold. Yes, he is a staunch fiscal conservative who has cut deeply at perceived fat in the county's budget. But he is also a realistic politician with a social conscience. Faced with a two-term limit, he is thinking about a race for governor in 1998.

That would mean a primary against Ellen R. Sauerbrey, who just barely lost the governorship in 1994 and is the darling of the GOP's hard-edged conservatives who are intent on seizing control of the party. An Ecker-Sauerbrey match-up would test hTC the true leanings of Maryland Republicans.

Some conservatives insist the party must be purged of "disloyal Republicans" such as Mr. Ecker, Ms. Morella, Ms. Bentley, former Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall and even the late state Sen. John A. Cade, who dared work with liberal Democrats to pass legislation. These insurgents want GOP leaders who adhere rigidly to a pure conservative agenda and refuse to compromise.

To question the conservatism of Mr. Ecker or Mr. Neall is absurd. Yet critics in their hysteria are portraying them as neo-socialists. It's just not true. Where a Chuck Ecker or a Bobby Neall differs from an Ellen Sauerbrey is in the realization government isn't an evil that must be chopped down, but a well-intended institution in need of taming, not maiming.

A gubernatorial primary would stimulate interest in the state GOP: Textbook conservatism versus cautious pragmatism; an ex-legislator who prided herself in unyielding opposition versus a county executive who's had to find answers to real-life government problems.

Middle-road Republicans have a proud tradition within the state GOP. Mr. Ecker is a natural heir. If the Howard County executive runs, he would give the moderate wing of the party a representative voice, one that could well prove appealing to voters beyond the outnumbered ranks of state Republicans.

Pub Date: 12/01/96

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