DEMOCRATS MAY outnumber Republicans by a sizable margin in voter registration in Howard County, but they are underdogs in political strength.
Several GOP officials are positioning themselves for a shot at county executive. Prospects are strong for a vibrant Republican primary that could develop into a battle between various factions. This is a stark contrast from the pre-Chuck Ecker era. Then, the party was weak but unified. Now, it is strong -- and fragmented.
Democrats, on the other hand, have lost much of their registration advantage in recent years, but still outnumber Republicans by a margin of 48 percent to 37 percent, with the remaining registrants independent or members of small parties.
Despite their party's numerical advantage, it is hard to identify any Democratic figures as rising stars.
The GOP is where the action is.
One wing of the party is lining up behind Darrel Drown, a two-term County Council member and strident conservative.
Mr. Drown's experience as a council member and as a former school system administrator no doubt boosts his chances. But he has huge negatives.
His uncompromising approach to politics is the antithesis of Mr. Ecker's. And he has a penchant for injudicious statements that betray a dark side. Once, he castigated county employees as lazy, tagging them with having a "union mentality."
He made an even more disturbing remark when responding to charges that the slate of candidates he supported in the recent judicial campaign used racist tactics by mailing campaign literature that isolated a black council colleague and a black judge whom he opposed. The councilman and judge, Mr. Drown said, "must be afraid of being black."
He later complained that he had been baited, a virtual admission of ill-temperament.
Does Howard really want a county executive who could make such foolish statements?
Yet Del. Robert L. Flanagan says Mr. Drown is the one person who might keep him from running for county executive. He says he would support Mr. Drown. Mr. Flanagan shows no such deference to council Chairman Dennis R. Schrader, who fits more easily into the moderate Ecker mold.
But Mr. Schrader, a first-term council member, showed courage by breaking ranks with other GOP leaders to support the incumbent judges in the recent campaign. His positives include administrative experience as vice president of facilities management for the University of Maryland Medical System. He is also sincere and likable. His down side: only two years as an elected official. Despite that, he would be the Republicans' most attractive candidate if he can survive his party's primary.
"As a Democrat, I can only hope for a real nasty [Republican primary] fight," says Carole Fisher, chairman of Howard County's Democratic Central Committee.
Then there are the Rappaports. Either former county police chief Paul Rappaport or his wife, Circuit Court Clerk Margaret Rappaport, could join the fray.
Mr. Rappaport was Ellen R. Sauerbrey's running mate in the gubernatorial race two years ago and could return in that role in 1998. Mrs. Rappaport, a one-time Democrat, has proved a tireless campaigner and has been one of the county's top vote-getters in her two campaigns.
In my favorite scenario they both run, with Mrs. Rappaport changing parties again to become a Democrat and then battling her husband in the general election: Rappaport vs. Rappaport.
Democrats have fewer intriguing scenarios, at least at this early stage. The obvious choice is Councilman C. Vernon Gray, the four-term African-American council member who was one target of Mr. Drown's venom in the judicial campaign.
Although he refuses to talk about it, Mr. Gray's chances seemed to dim after the judicial election. Howard voters rejected an African-American judge with stellar credentials, providing further proof that black candidates cannot win countywide elections here.
Even if race were not a factor, Mr. Gray would have trouble because his left-of-center politics do not play outside Columbia. He may be the hardest-working council member, providing constituent services to his district and even beyond. But that has brought him trouble, too, with his proclivity to reach out and touch the masses via his publicly financed car phone.
So Democrats may rally behind State Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, whose politics have gone from slightly conservative to slightly liberal, says pollster J. Bradford Coker. Mr. Kasemeyer lost his former seat to Republican Christopher McCabe in 1990, but made a comeback in a district that includes Howard and Baltimore counties on the strength of his gun-control advocacy.
Mr. Coker believes another Democrat to watch might be former councilman Paul Farragut.
But any of those Democrats would have an uphill climb, unless Republicans botch their formula for success.
Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.
Pub Date: 12/08/96