GOP race intensifies in Howard 3 council candidates in first campaigns stir primary interest; Expert praises competition; Democrats hoping to take spots vacated by four Republicans


Three first-time Republican candidates for seats on the Howard County Council are turning up the heat in what has so far been a calm -- some say boring -- election year.

In District 4, which includes most of Columbia and Fulton, GOP newcomer Greg Fox has strengthened his bid to unseat Mary C. Lorsung by raising almost three times as much campaign money as the Democratic incumbent.

In District 5, a western Howard Republican stronghold, GOP hopefuls Gail H. Bates and Allan Kittleman are taking on each other. Each has raised more than $22,000 -- far outdistancing candidates not only in their race, but also in other districts.

Media consultant Roger Caplan says that kind of competition is good for a party.

"It doesn't bode well for a party if you can't have a healthy primary," says Caplan, president of his public relations firm in Columbia. "A primary stirs interest in the press, and ink is always good."

But Lorsung says primary competition isn't such an important indicator.

"The strength of the candidates will show the strength of the party," she says. "I think that the Democrats have an excellent chance of taking back the executive spot and at least a majority on the council, maybe even four" of five seats.

Democrats have been saying this is their year because GOP County Executive Charles I. Ecker and three Republican council members are leaving office. But Columbia pollster J. Brad Coker says GOP prospects look good.

"The county has a slight Republican lean despite the majority of registered Democrats out there," says Coker, who is advising Republican Councilman Dennis R. Schrader in his bid for county executive. "There have always been a lot of Democrats with conservative feelings."

The contest between Bates and Kittleman, son of GOP Del. Robert H. Kittleman, is one of three GOP primaries for the County Council to be decided Sept. 15. (The others are Christopher Merdon vs. Timothy McCoy in District 1 and Kirk Halpin against Wanda Hurt in District 3.)

Even though Republicans James Adams and Xavier Gramkow are also trying to succeed Charles C. Feaga, who has held a council seat for 12 years and is running for county executive, Bates and Kittleman are generally considered the front-runners because of greater name recognition and a vast network of political allies. Bernard Noppinger and Debra Slack-Katz are vying for the Democratic nomination.

Both are running hard

According to campaign finance reports, Bates has raised $24,627 since November, while Kittleman brought in $22,656. Slack-Katz received $4,010, and Adams, $290. Noppinger has filed an affidavit not to collect or spend more than $1,000. Gramkow's report wasn't available at the county elections office.

"You have to spend that much these days if you have a competitive primary," Coker says. "Whoever wins the primary will likely get elected in the fall."

Kittleman agrees. "I think that whoever comes out of this race will run full steam in October," says the 39-year-old West Friendship attorney. "If we didn't have a primary, we might be laying back a little bit."

Bates says if she wins, she does not intend to let up.

"I don't take anything for certainty," says Bates, 52, also of West Friendship and an aide to Ecker. "I have seen people take it for granted that someone was going to win and then it doesn't end up that way."

In District 1, Merdon leads all candidates with $10,256 in contributions. McCoy has received $3,500, while Democrat George L. Layman reported $3,925.

In District 2, Democratic incumbent C. Vernon Gray has raised $15,979. Republican Susan Cook has received $3,270 and fellow GOP hopeful James Fitzgerald has pledged not to spend or collect more than $1,000.

In District 3, Wanda Hurt leads Halpin and Democrat Guy Guzzone with $17,404 in contributions. Halpin has taken in $2,470, while Guzzone has collected $16,571.

In the race for the District 4 seat, Fox has raised more than $17,600 -- dwarfing the $6,400 that Lorsung has received in contributions.

Money can deceive

But Caplan warns that the money aspect might be deceiving.

"Mary is a real strong grass-roots type of politician," Caplan says. "She stays in contact with her constituents and she never raises a lot of money."

Lorsung, who in 1994 defeated retired business executive Riaz Rana despite his $55,000 campaign fund, says she is not worried.

"To me, that's getting away from the community-based, citizen-based representation you should have at the local level," Lorsung says. "I think we can have a successful campaign with the money we have."

Still, for Fox to raise that much money "is very good," Caplan says. "He's doing this all on his own."

Fox says his support is evidence of the GOP's strength in Howard. "I think it shows how appealing I am in a supposedly liberal district. As a moderate Republican, I can appeal to my district, too."

Pub Date: 8/24/98

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