Republican Councilman Dennis R. Schrader fired the first shot in the general election campaign for Howard County executive yesterday, labeling his Democratic opponent James N. Robey a "captive" of employee unions, an opponent of tax cuts and a waffler on issues.
Robey, the former police chief, rejected what he called Schrader's "trashy" attack, assailing it as rife with inaccuracies and questioning Schrader's character for mounting such a negative offensive. He countered that it is Schrader who changed his positions on issues such as growth and the county's trash fee solely to court voters.
Schrader said he hoped his news conference yesterday would magnify his appeal to voters. He believes his characterizations of Robey as a pawn of employee unions and an opponent of tax cuts will play well with what he calls "the broad middle" of Howard County's electorate -- which includes more than 20,000 independent voters who are registered with neither party.
"What I'm reaching out to are those independent-minded people who are concerned about the government operating efficiently and effectively," Schrader said. "This is announcing in a very public way that a campaign has started."
Ironically, this attack on Robey came less than 15 hours after Schrader appeared with Robey at a candidates forum Monday night in Columbia and told 40 elderly citizens, "I'm not going to knock my friend Jim here."
Now, Schrader has pulled what political observers call a classic campaign maneuver: Label your opponent before he gets a chance to label himself. Of less importance, some say, is whether every accusation Schrader makes actually has merit.
"Whether it's true or not, he's defining Jim," said media consultant Roger Caplan, who is advising GOP delegate candidate Todd Arterburn, one of the Republican office-seekers who attended Schrader's news conference. "Jim has to clearly stand up and articulate exactly who he is and what he is, and he cannot allow his opponent to do that for him."
Schrader's accusations were wide-ranging and occasionally missed the mark, touching off an exchange of remarks yesterday.
The Republican's statements touched on the trivial -- implying Robey stole Schrader's observation that 1998 would see big leadership changes in Howard County -- and the more substantive -- such as an accusation that Robey once said he would raise taxes if elected, which Robey denies.
Robey has repeatedly criticized this year's 4 percent local income tax cut, and he said at a June candidates forum that if raising taxes would benefit the schools, "That's what may have to be done."
Schrader said Robey might also have to raise taxes because he is "too cozy" with police and fire unions -- a message that may appeal particularly to fiscal conservatives and independent voters. Robey has said in the campaign that the county's pay and benefits are not "competitive" with other counties.
"I wonder if he hasn't already promised them things that he can't deliver on without a tax increase," Schrader said, discussing the unions' contributions of more than $5,000 to Robey's campaign. "He's getting a significant amount of money from them. It just raises a question."
But Schrader said his own acceptance of close to $80,000 in campaign contributions from the development industry -- nearly half of the money he raised by the end of last month -- doesn't raise similar questions about his own ability to remain objective. He said he has "proven" he can vote against developers' projects.
Schrader said Robey lacks original ideas, that the Democrat's positions on growth and the $125-a-household trash fee have come closer to his own over time.
He said Robey initially opposed the elimination of the $125-a-household trash fee, then months later said he would be willing to "look at" the idea. And he said Robey copied his idea of looking at the economic impact of growth -- an idea that was first proposed by Democratic Councilman C. Vernon Gray and then supported by Schrader.
Robey countered by saying Schrader has changed his positions on growth and taxes to get elected. He pointed out that Schrader voted to institute the trash fee in the first place -- an act Schrader called falling "on his sword" for the Republican administration that proposed it. Robey also said most of Schrader's high-profile votes against development have come in the past year, though Schrader replied that he did cast an important vote against developers' interests in 1996.
Schrader also called Robey's integrity into question. He said it was a "conflict of interest" for Robey to lobby for an increase in pension benefits last year as he was about to retire as police chief -- comparing it by implication to Gov. Parris N. Glendening's own pension-increase controversy at the end of his tenure as Prince George's County executive.
Robey responded that he told GOP Councilman Charles C. Feaga last year he would be willing to exclude himself from the new pension plan if that meant the plan would pass -- an account Feaga confirmed yesterday as he lamented Schrader's decision to "go negative."
"I would rather lose an election than go negative," said Feaga, who lost to Schrader in the GOP primary for executive last week and has not endorsed Schrader in the general election. "This sounds a little bit like negative campaigning. I would hope that it does not turn into that."
Feaga, who was the subject of a Schrader advertisement painting him as "the developers' friend," said he felt Schrader "played to the audiences." He said he will not publicly support Robey, but he praised the Democrat as a "gentleman" and said he will watch how the two conduct their campaigns.
Even after yesterday's exchange of barbs, neither candidate says he is going "negative." Robey said he won't "attack" Schrader, but he will respond. Yet he didn't hold back much in criticizing Schrader's news conference yesterday.
"It's as trashy as it comes," Robey said. "It says something about his character."
Pub Date: 9/23/98