Howard County Councilman C. Vernon Gray won the vice presidency of the National Association of Counties (NACo) yesterday, ending a two-year political odyssey that puts him in line to become leader of the powerful lobbying group in 1999.
The east Columbia Democrat had crisscrossed the country campaigning for the office, taking only a short break after narrowly losing a shot at the job at last summer's NACo convention in Houston.
Yesterday, Gray triumphed on a vote of 2,691 to 1,862 over Gerry Hyland, a Fairfax, Va., county supervisor who ran a high-powered campaign complete with a rhythm-and-blues band on the convention floor.
"I'm very appreciative, relieved after two years," Gray said moments after the vote at NACo's convention in Baltimore. "This is a run that I wouldn't want anyone to do twice."
As long as Gray remains a Howard County official, he will automatically ascend a chain of succession that in 1999 will make him NACo president, a prestigious one-year job in which Gray would lobby senators and the president on behalf of 3,000 counties.
In October, NACo leaders will spend two weeks touring China. Gray, who grew up on a Calvert County farm before becoming a Morgan State University professor and Columbia politician, said he has not decided whether to go on that trip.
Gray also has announced plans to run for Howard County executive in 1998, though after his election yesterday, he declined to reiterate his plans to run.
"We're dealing with this victory today," he said.
Last year, Gray's fund raising for the NACo election drew ethical scrutiny when he sought donations from dozens of businesses -- including some regulated by the County Council.
The Howard County Ethics Commission eventually cleared Gray of wrongdoing, though it strongly urged him to detail the $14,300 he had received in donations, which he later did.
But the damage was done. Gray later blamed newspaper coverage of the issue for costing him crucial votes in the NACo election, which he lost by just 50 votes out of more than 4,000.
Going into yesterday's vote, Gray was confident, having locked up several key states in caucus votes Monday.
"It's all over," Gray announced early yesterday afternoon, as he stood in the lobby of the Baltimore Convention Center two hours before the vote.
Hyland took the early lead, thanks to votes from Minnesota, Mississippi and Georgia. Gray, however, quickly rallied.
"The home of the Roswell aliens," said the delegate from New Mexico, "casts 36 votes for Vernon Gray."
When Florida added its 382 votes a moment later, Gray surged ahead for good.
Hyland actually won more states -- 29 in all. But they tended to be rural and smaller, with fewer votes. Gray won California, Louisiana, Texas and Michigan to ensure a comfortable victory.
"Clearly, there are six or seven [states] in NACo who can control the vote," Hyland said afterward. "And I think that raises questions about representation."
Gray had support from fellow county officials throughout Maryland during the convention.
Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker, a Republican, had top county officials work on Gray's campaign. Council Chairman Dennis R. Schrader, also a Republican, prompted the County Council to endorse Gray. He attended yesterday's vote.
Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary, another Republican, was there too, wearing a "C. Vernon Gray" hat. "It's probably the first time I've ever voted for a Democrat," he said.
The Maryland Association of Counties donated $1,500 and 300 Orioles tickets to Gray's effort.
He also received $1,000 from Comcast Cablevision -- Howard's largest cable provider -- as well as $500 from Bell Atlantic and $2,300 from Variable Annuity Life Insurance Co., a Houston firm that manages a tax-deferred savings plan for Howard County workers.
Yesterday, there was only a little talk of last year's frustrations as Gray finally reached the end of a long road.
"I congratulate you on a good effort last year," said former NACo President Randall Franke, a Marion County, Ore., commissioner. "And I congratulate you on a winning effort this year."
Pub Date: 7/16/97