About 70 Howard County Republicans witnessed an unusual scene last night for what was not so long ago a Democrat-dominated county: A faceoff between two GOP candidates for county executive.
But council members Charles C. Feaga and Dennis R. Schrader did not exactly challenge or debate each other during the Howard County Republican Club's forum, the candidates' first one-on-one event of the primary season.
In fact, they began the forum at the Columbia Presbyterian Church by sounding a call for unity, as Feaga told the audience they have "two strong candidates here to choose from."
Both candidates have already made clear they will support whoever wins the mid-September GOP primary over the one announced Democratic candidate, former police chief James N.
Robey, in the race to succeed Republican County Executive Charles I. Ecker.
For more than an hour, the two Republicans held what amounted to a get-to-know-us session. They fielded questions from the Republican Club president and audience members civilly without directly engaging one another -- even when they were prodded on issues that clearly divide them.
Still, the differences in the two candidates were not hard to discern.
Schrader, whose fast-growing southeastern Howard district is sensitive to growth issues, stressed the need to better manage growth.
Even in answering questions that might not seem at first to be about growth, such as keeping down the county's debt, Schrader connected the dots to the high-cost needs that come with growth, such as building roads and schools.
"It's that growth that drives our debt," the first-term councilman said, arguing that managing growth is "preventive medicine" for keeping down debt.
Feaga, a 12-year councilman considered more friendly to growth than Schrader, said the county has done a "great job" managing growth.
Feaga talked more about "financial responsibility," emphasizing the need to control county debt and keep spending down.
The West Friendship farmer defended the county's $125-per-home trash fee -- which Schrader once voted for but now opposes -- as "truth in taxation."
"Everybody that has trash has to help pay that fee. It's a very fair thing to do," Feaga said. "I would rather see us lower property taxes if we do have surpluses in the future."
Schrader's discussion of the trash fee betrayed his first public hint of discord with Ecker's 4 percent cut in the piggyback income tax this year. Derided by educators and parents during this year's school budget battle as something "no one asked for," Ecker's tax cut passed only with the support of the council's Republican majority.
But Schrader said last night that he supported the income tax cut because he didn't want to seem hypocritical by not supporting lower taxes. The hospital executive said a cut in the trash fee would have been better.
"I think we could have gotten a lot less grief from the school system if we had cut the trash fee by $50," he said.
Schrader and Feaga certainly took different lessons from the education budget fight. Schrader said he did not mind taking heat from parents and educators, suggesting that is simply part of governing.
Feaga, on the other hand, criticized the booing and grandstanding of the roughly 800 people who attended a May public hearing on the school budget.
"It was the toughest meeting that I've ever had to handle," Feaga said. "We do have to clamp down, have a little tighter system in the future."
And Feaga, unlike Schrader, said he would advocate giving school boards the power to levy taxes, arguing that the board now can ask for all the money it wants without having to worry about the political consequences if the council needs to make spending cuts elsewhere or raise taxes to boost school spending.
Even when the candidates disagreed strongly, the forum never turned confrontational. Members of the audience showed their allegiances to candidates merely by sporting campaign stickers, not by cheering or jeering.
The only applause during the forum came when one member of the audience remarked that either candidate would be better than "the alternative," Democratic candidate Robey.
Pub Date: 6/19/98