Ecker setting his sights on Sauerbrey Long-shot campaign pits him against a former long shot; 'I am running'; Executive meets with activists, raises funds


Anyone who doubts that Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker is serious about running for governor should take a glance at his schedule: Republican Party dinner in St. Mary's County. Republican clubs in Prince George's. Radio interviews on Baltimore radio stations.

He is not approaching the pace of his opponent for the Republican nomination, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, whose hyperkinetic 1994 campaign never really stopped. But, in his quiet, methodical way, Ecker has become the second candidate in the 1998 Republican gubernatorial race.

He is raising money, meeting activists and trying to shake up a primary campaign that many of the party faithful consider finished a year and a half before the first vote is cast.

Ecker's formal announcement is probably months away, but he recently told a Prince George's County crowd, "I am running for governor. I want to be your governor."

Party insiders consider Ecker a long shot. Sauerbrey supporter Carol L. Hirschburg says, "I think he's wasting his time. I don't know what in the world he hopes to accomplish. He can't win."

But Ecker and his advisers think history -- his and Sauerbrey's -- is on his side.

Four years ago, Sauerbrey -- a former Republican leader in the House of Delegates -- was the little-known candidate taking on the Republican primary's front-runner, longtime U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley.

But Sauerbrey roared past Bentley to win the Republican nomination and came within 5,993 votes of becoming the first Republican governor in Maryland in three decades.

In attempting to rise from political obscurity, Ecker hopes to follow Sauerbrey's model -- and his own.

Eight years ago, Ecker was a retired school administrator -- and a Democrat -- when Howard Republicans tapped him as their nominee for county executive against Elizabeth Bobo, the incumbent and widely considered the overwhelming favorite.

In 1990, after spending a year and $40,000 of his own money campaigning, Ecker became the first Republican in Howard County to be elected county executive.

So is he a long shot against Sauerbrey?

"No more than I was in '90 against the county executive then," Ecker says. "In fact, probably less of a long shot."

Some of the advisers who helped Ecker at that time form the skeletal beginnings of his latest campaign.

Carol Arscott, then chairwoman of the Republican Central Committee in Howard, is now a political consultant working for Ecker. And Harry "Chip" Lundy, a Howard homebuilder, is again raising money.

No exploratory committee

Ecker also is reaching out to party moderates around the state, although he has decided against creating an exploratory committee. "I think I have enough information without forming a committee," he says.

Bentley and state Sen. Robert R. Neall, the former Anne Arundel County executive, are publicly supporting Ecker, as are two county commissioners from Maryland's Eastern Shore.

Lee B. Sturgill, an Upper Marlboro Republican activist, calls himself Ecker's "Prince George's County man," even though the two didn't meet until a month ago.

Ecker says he hopes to hire a campaign field director in the next 60 days to begin pulling together the campaign, which is now so rudimentary that Ecker often arrives alone at party functions around the state.

By comparison, Sauerbrey has three paid staffers, $114,000 in the bank and an all-star lineup of national Republicans attending fund-raisers.

Former presidential candidate Steve Forbes is coming to a $200-a-person event for Sauerbrey this month. Her spokeswoman says that Jack Kemp, Dan Quayle, Phil Gramm and Govs. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin and John Engler of Michigan have made commitments for future events.

Sauerbrey's narrow loss in 1994 has given her a tremendous edge in name recognition and grass-roots support, particularly among the conservatives who typically dominate Republican primaries.

But Ecker hopes to re-create the kind of come-from-behind tTC victory he staged in 1990, focusing on public safety, education and economic development. And his campaign plans to emphasize Ecker's two terms of executive experience, compared with none for Sauerbrey, a former legislator.

Ecker's advisers also hope that the anger that pushed conservatives to victory across the county in 1994 has subsided in favor of more moderate, less confrontational styles of Republicanism.

Columbia pollster Brad Coker, a longtime Ecker adviser, called Sauerbrey "perhaps a relic of the Gingrich revolution," referring to the sweeping right-wing conservative victories of 1994.

'1994 was an aberration'

In February, Kevin Igoe -- Sauerbrey's political director in 1994 and now an independent consultant -- wrote a confidential memo to his legislative clients, including Maryland Republican insiders.

The memo, obtained by The Sun, says that "1994 was an aberration; it is not a starting point. It was a political environment which will be very difficult to replicate in 1998."

Later, the memo says, "In September, when Republicans were jumping up and down that the governor has the lowest rating in America, he was ahead of Sauerbrey by three points. Now, he is ahead by seven points. Among independent voters, he leads by 10 percent. Among women, he leads by 21 percent!"

In an interview yesterday, Igoe said he meant to point out general Republican weaknesses in the memo, not any particularly shortcomings of Sauerbrey's, particularly in the coming primary election.

But his analysis suggests an opportunity for Ecker.

"In both parties, I think, people are looking for someone else," says Rick LaSota, chairman of the Republican Central Committee in Montgomery County. "They're looking for good government."

'Common-sense approach'

For Ecker to seriously challenge Sauerbrey, he has to persuade primary voters -- and a slew of big donors -- to bet on a long-shot alternative who offers Republicanism with a softer edge.

Ecker calls it a "common-sense, pragmatic approach, rather than with a meat cleaver."

"We don't want to take food away from babies or throw old people out in the streets," he says. "We want to provide a safety net and treat people with compassion."

Pub Date: 4/17/97

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