Quick draw in executive race Howard County: Yeager's early zinger on Gray portends hard-fought primary next year.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WE ARE 17 MONTHS from the 1998 general election, which means that Howard County Democrats may self-destruct in record time. Already percolating is a bitter battle in the race for county executive between the party's standard-bearer, Councilman C. Vernon Gray, and former state Sen. Thomas M. Yeager.

Mr. Yeager came out of his corner swinging at his rival, tagging him with the label "extremely liberal," which both men know can be hazardous to a candidate's political health.

Mr. Gray will avoid this description like poison as he tries to survive a primary unblemished enough to run a credible campaign for executive of an increasingly conservative county against the eventual Republican nominee.

Mr. Gray was not promised a free ride to the general election. He already must have been concerned about the possible candidacy of U.S. Attorney Lynne Ann Battaglia, who would bring powerhouse credentials to the table as Maryland's top federal prosecutor. But Mr. Yeager's early zinger probably caught Mr. Gray and the other Democratic Party faithful off guard.

Mr. Yeager, however, is no stranger to in-party fighting. After then-Del. Virginia M. Thomas scored a landslide victory to oust him from his Senate seat in the 1994 primary, he supported Republican Martin G. Madden, who won the general election. Mr. Yeager could play the role of spoiler again. Even if Mr. Gray wins the primary, he will lose if Mr. Yeager hounds him with the "extremely liberal" tag. If that happens, the party's chances of recapturing the executive's seat next year could be nil.

Republicans may have a contentious primary of their own, with Dennis R. Schrader, chairman of the County Council, preparing to face off against Councilman Charles C. Feaga. The GOP, which has strategically captured political power in a county where Democratic voters still outnumber Republicans, would be delighted to see a Democratic slugfest.

Democrats in disarray fizzled when trying to wrest the county executive's seat from Republican Charles I. Ecker in 1994. They could not nominate a candidate strong enough to unify the party and electrify the electorate. The GOP could not be happier that Democrats so far haven't done much to change their ways.

Pub Date: 6/13/97

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