Republican gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey is visiting Howard County today to campaign on the home turf of her GOP gubernatorial rival, County Executive Charles I. Ecker.
But Sauerbrey has gone out of her way to avoid even the appearance of attacking Ecker during the daylong visit. Her campaign Friday changed the location of a news conference after Ecker's advisers accused her of trying to subtly sabotage their candidate on the issue of education.
Today's news conference was to have been held at the Fulton site of a proposed high school Ecker has opposed. Aides say Sauerbrey was planning to criticize Gov. Parris N. Glendening for not allocating enough school construction money for the county, but Ecker's camp called the choice of the Fulton site a "deliberate tactic."
When close Sauerbrey friend Del. Robert H. Kittleman heard about the flap Friday afternoon, he talked with the campaign about changing the location. Within a half-hour, the news conference was moved to Triadelphia Ridge Elementary School, a school set to open in the fall.
Kittleman said Sauerbrey has no intention of attacking Ecker. "That's her desire for the campaign, is not to go negative any time, any way, on Chuck," said Kittleman, of western Howard. "And [the Fulton site] would have been contrary to her instructions, because it would have been taken that way."
Kittleman is one of a number of Sauerbrey supporters in the county who consider themselves friends of Ecker. "In the whole state of Maryland, of everybody I know, he'd probably be my second choice to be governor," Kittleman said.
Boyd Rutherford, a co-director of Sauerbrey's Howard campaign, acknowledged that in picking the Fulton site, local Sauerbrey organizers were aware of "some sensitivity" for Ecker. But after changing the location Friday afternoon, he said the campaign didn't want to send a "confused message."
The purpose of Sauerbrey's stop at the Triadelphia Ridge school, her aides say, is to hammer Glendening.
"She believes that Parris has not in any way fulfilled his obligation to promote education in the state the way that he promised in his last campaign, and any remarks she has outside of her own education plan will be directed to Parris' shortcomings," said Carol Hirschburg, communications director for Sauerbrey.
But Ecker's campaign feels Sauerbrey is trying to hit one of Ecker's soft spots by taking a stand on schools in Howard County, scene of a recent bruising budget battle between Ecker and the school board.
"How odd that she would pick Howard County, with the No. 1 rated school district," said Geyer Wise, Ecker's campaign manager. "I can think of a lot more school districts in the state that need more money than Howard County needs money."
The education issue is sensitive for Ecker, a former educator, on two fronts.
He was criticized not only for scrapping plans to build a high school at the Fulton site to help prevent classroom crowding in the fast-growing region, but also for proposing a school operating budget that fell $9.2 million short of what educators wanted, while at the same time calling for a 4 percent cut in the county's piggyback income tax.
With that backdrop, some Ecker backers see political opportunism behind Sauerbrey's visit to Howard to speak about education, even if the news conference has moved.
xTC However, the school construction issue raises one of Ecker's strong points on education in the past few months. When state funding fell $6.6 million short of expectations, Ecker made up the difference with more county spending and then found money to increase his initial proposal.
Pub Date: 6/08/98