Gray is ready for 'rematch' in NACo vote Councilman seeks redemption after bitter defeat last year; 'This time, prevail'; Vice presidency of group could be a steppingstone


Some elections are about power, some about issues. But for Howard County Councilman C. Vernon Gray, his second bid to become vice president of the National Association of Counties is about redemption.

Not that power and issues don't matter. NACo, now having its annual convention in Baltimore, is permeated with both.

But on Tuesday, Gray has the chance to undo a loss so sudden and bitter that a year later, it stings him still. And he has a chance to do it in Baltimore, home territory for the Columbia Democrat and Morgan State University professor.

"This time, prevail," said Ram Ramchandran, a county councilor from St. Charles, La., as he greeted Gray in the Baltimore Convention Center Friday morning. "Don't let it slip through your fingers."

Gray -- standing amid campaign fliers, mints, crab stickers and 5,000 bottles of spring water bearing "Gray for NACo First Vice President" labels -- needed no such instructions.

"We've got enough water," Gray joked with one supporter, "if we don't get Michigan, we're going to drown 'em."

Consolations about last year's loss -- and promises of a better outcome this time -- have become a salutation, a way old friends say hello.

The election is for an office called "first vice president," a link in a chain of succession that would make Gray NACo president in 1999.

While the job may not sound glamorous, NACo presidents regularly lobby the Congress and the White House on behalf of the nation's 3,000 counties. The job can be a key to power and advancement in politics, a world driven by personal contacts and strategic alliances.

For Gray, who also plans to run for Howard County executive in 1998, it could be an important career move.

At last year's NACo convention in Houston, Gray narrowly lost an election for second vice president because of a last-minute defection by some Michigan counties and the whiff of scandal related to Gray's fund raising for his campaign.

The difference was 50 votes out of more than 4,000 cast.

But things started improving for Gray when the winner of that election, Richard Cecil of New Castle County, Del. lost his job as county commissioner during an election a few months later.

Cecil would have automatically become first vice president this week in Baltimore, but the job is open only to county officials. Cecil had to step down. Gray stepped back up.

Other things have broken right for Gray this year as well.

Last year, the Republican majority of the Howard County Council battled with Gray, criticizing him for using council staff time, supplies and postage to mount his campaign.

This year, he has the formal endorsement of the council. And County Executive Charles I. Ecker, a Republican who also supported Gray's campaign last year, has helped staff Gray's campaign this year. Several department heads, including Chief Administrative Officer Raquel Sanudo, are to help staff his campaign booth.

Last year, Gray also drew ethical scrutiny for his fund raising for the NACo campaign. He sought donations from dozens of companies -- including Comcast Cablevision, which the council directly regulates -- and assured each that their donations would not be revealed on the disclosure forms required in elections for ordinary public offices.

Learning from past

News accounts of the issue circulated at the convention, which Gray later said cost him crucial votes.

The Howard County Ethics Commission investigated and cleared Gray of wrong-doing. It also urged him to reveal the source and size of all his donations, which he later did.

That report showed donations totaling $14,300, including $3,000 from Comcast Cablevision.

This year, Gray again has turned to corporate friends for support. But he has detailed hisdonations upon request.

They include $1,000 from Comcast, $500 from Bell Atlantic and $2,300 from Variable Annuity Life Insurance Co., a Houston company that manages one of Howard County's tax-deferred savings plans for employees. Taro Spring Water in Clarksville donated the water bottles Gray handed out to conventioneers.

The Houston insurance company also is underwriting Gray's plush "Presidential Suite" at the Sheraton Hotel, with a sweeping view of the harbor, a baby grand piano, a makeshift bar and enough space to host hundreds of potential supporters each night.

Local donations

The Maryland Association of Counties, a NACo affiliate that Gray once led as president, has donated $1,500 to Gray, including hundreds of tickets to Orioles games, which conventioneers must collect at his campaign booth.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening also opened up his Camden Yards skybox for Gray's use Friday night. Gray doled out those invitations to power brokers from states with key swing votes.

After last year's debacle, Gray is taking nothing for granted.

His opponent this year is Gerry Hyland, a county supervisor from Fairfax, Va.

On Friday, he had his troops decked out in navy-blue campaign shirts, handing out "Hyland for NACo 1st Vice-President" bags of peanuts and jar openers at a campaign booth.

A video featuring Hyland and his supporters ran continuously on a television monitor nearby.

But Gray seems to hold some advantage because of last year.

Redoubled efforts

"I started this campaign clearly having to play catch-up," Hyland said Friday.

Gray is well known. His supporters -- convinced that Gray was robbed in the last election -- have redoubled their efforts this year.

"I'm 'Slim' from West Virginia," said one tall, sandy-haired conventioneer as he grabbed Gray's hand. "We would have gotten you there."

Gray replied, "Let's go all the way with West Virginia this year."

Pub Date: 7/13/97

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