Republican voters will be greeted with an unusual sight when they go to the polls Tuesday to cast their primary ballots: choices -- and lots of them.
In the county executive's race and in three of the five County Council races, Republicans get to pick between at least two candidates.
"For years, people have heard that in the state of Maryland they should register as Democrats because that's where all the choices are in the primary," said Louis Pope, chairman of the local Republican Party. Now, he said, "We have qualified choices."
For the GOP, primary competition is both the luxury and the burden of being the party in power in Howard County; Democrats have cruised untouched by partisan bickering, watching with some glee as Republicans spend money to beat each other.
The most money has been spent in the executive's race -- at least $200,000 -- and the cash has bought both sides opportunities to bicker.
Dennis R. Schrader, who says he wants to better manage residential growth, has been airing a television advertisement that calls fellow Councilman Charles C. Feaga "the developers' friend."
Since Schrader's ad began airing in late August, Feaga has sent two mailings that challenge his opponent for using pollsters and running negative ads. But Feaga, who calls himself "not your ordinary politician," avoids mentioning Schrader's name in the mailings.
To some party insiders, the Feaga-Schrader race is a battle between old Howard and new Howard: Feaga, the 65-year-old farmer and lifelong western Howard resident who represents the conservative wing of the party, vs. Schrader, a 45-year-old prototypical suburban moderate Republican who lives in Columbia and commutes to his job as a Baltimore hospital executive.
But to the public, the race has been a study in contrasting styles.
Feaga has presented himself as a no-nonsense politician who knows Howard County and "doesn't talk out of both sides of his mouth," as one of his ads proclaims. A message more of character than of issues, it plays on Feaga's image as a sort of county father figure who has been around forever -- as opposed to Schrader, who moved to the county in the mid-1980s and is waging a more modern campaign, complete with focus groups and paid strategists.
Feaga's platform is largely to stay the course set by GOP County Executive Charles I. Ecker, handling growth and taxes the same as Ecker has for eight years. The only significant exception is Feaga's desire to pay down the county's debt, which rose during the Ecker years as the county built schools and roads to accommodate the growth of the late 1980s and 1990s.
Schrader has focused his message more on issues. He touts his experience as a hospital executive and his service in the Navy, but he spends most of his time repeating his campaign mantra of growth, education and taxes. In the past year, he has beefed up his record on managing growth, voting against five projects ++ supported by Feaga, most notably Rouse Co.'s Columbia-style village development planned for North Laurel.
Schrader also talks about encouraging more commercial development, eliminating the $125-a-household trash fee -- which Feaga has said he would retain -- and keeping a closer eye on school spending.
School budget clash
The contrast between the two candidates' styles also showed during last spring's school budget clash. While Feaga initially refused to consider appeasing educators who complained that Ecker's budget fell short, Schrader waited quietly and presented himself as a compromiser.
The winner will face Democrat James N. Robey, the former police chief who is unopposed in the primary.
A familiar trio
The issues in the council primaries, not surprisingly, closely mirror those of the executive's race. In the three Republican primaries and two Democratic races, the candidates are talking about growth, education or taxes.
In District 1, Ellicott City and Elkridge, Christopher J. Merdon is running against fellow Ellicott City resident Timothy McCoy for the GOP nomination.
Merdon, a 27-year-old software developer, focuses on managing growth, and is declining contributions from developers and zoning attorneys to avoid the appearance that they might influence his zoning votes. McCoy, a 42-year-old real estate agent, is stressing the importance of keeping up with growth by budgeting properly.
The winner will face Democrat George L. Layman, 55, a limousine driver and member of the county Board of Appeals.
In District 2, east Columbia, four-term incumbent Democratic Councilman C. Vernon Gray faces little-known Democrat James Fitzgerald. The winner will run against Republican Susan Cook, former chairwoman of the school board.
In District 3, southern Howard, former Columbia Council member Wanda Hurt is vying with attorney Kirk J. Halpin for the GOP nomination.
Hurt, who until four years ago was a Democratic activist, is Schrader's choice to succeed him; she generally shares his views on managing growth and education. The 55-year-old former PTA activist found herself in an uncomfortable spot last spring when the County Council's Republican majority cut the local income tax and gave schools $5 million less than educators had requested. She initially said she didn't favor the tax cut, but she later supported her party's position.
Halpin, 28, is president of the Howard County Young Republicans and a member of the Kings Contrivance Village Board. He says he would form a panel to recommend ways to better manage growth, would encourage hiring more elementary school teachers and would increase salaries and benefits for police officers to discourage them from leaving the department.
The winner will face Columbia Democrat Guy Guzzone, former director of the Maryland Sierra Club.
In District 5, western Howard, West Friendship Republicans Gail H. Bates and Allan H. Kittleman face each other and two lesser-known candidates for the chance to succeed Feaga.
Bates, a 52-year-old assistant to the county executive, has the endorsements of Ecker and Feaga. She says the county should continue managing growth as it has, look to lower taxes further, and try to resist political grandstanding and hold the line on education spending.
Kittleman, a 39-year-old attorney and son of Del. Robert H. Kittleman, talks about "controlling" growth instead of "managing" it. He wants to tighten the public facilities ordinance that helps decide when an area is ready for development, and like Merdon, has made a point of not accepting contributions from developers and zoning attorneys.
Kittleman is also interested in asking state legislators to give the school board taxing authority so that school officials would be directly accountable to voters if they raise taxes to increase spending.
The other two candidates in District 5 are James Adams of Ellicott City and Xaver Gramkow of Clarksville, both of whom support managing growth and keeping down taxes. The winner of the GOP primary will face Debra Ann Slack Katz of northwestern Howard or lesser-known Bernard Noppinger of Ellicott City, who are vying for the Democratic nomination.
Pub Date: 9/13/98