Tide takes out GOP Democrats win executive slot, council majority; 'Gingrich is disgusting'; Reversal from 1994 attributed to dislike of Congress' actions


Newt Gingrich wasn't on any of the ballots in Howard County on Tuesday, but if the Petersens of Columbia are any indication, many people voted against the Republican House speaker and his party in the local elections.

"I went down and checked off every Democratic box, even for people I didn't know," said Judy Petersen, a retired teacher and registered independent who has voted for candidates of both parties in past elections, including GOP County Executive Charles I. Ecker. "I think Newt Gingrich is disgusting."

Speaking over lunch yesterday at The Mall in Columbia, she said her Republican husband voted the same way for the same reason.

"He said, 'I'm utterly disgusted with Newt Gingrich and the other Republicans because all they care about is nailing Clinton. This time, I'm voting for every single Democrat on the ballot,' " Petersen said.

A wave of such sentiments helped deliver the Howard County executive's office and a majority on the County Council to Democrats, political observers from both parties said yesterday. The surprising Democratic showing reversed a 12-year trend of Republicans gaining ground in Howard elections, and, in the eyes of gloating Democratic leaders, crumbled one of the GOP's strongest bases of power in Maryland.

Republicans and Democrats pointed to other supporting factors, including a division within GOP ranks and an anti-Republican message on education pushed by Democrats. But most agreed that a heavy pro-Democratic turnout, driven by national discontent with the Republican-led Congress, turned the tide for Democrats here, much as the 1994 GOP tidal wave helped local Republicans win control of the County Council.

"I've coined a new phrase: All politics is national," said former local GOP chief Carol A. Arscott, a political consultant who advised Republican county executive candidate Dennis R. Schrader as well as all five GOP nominees for the County Council. "I understand now how the Democrats felt in 1994. When all of this stuff is happening and it has nothing to do with you, and when your gubernatorial candidate is going down 45-55 in your county, there's not a whole lot you can do about it."

The results were a stunning reversal of 1994.

GOP gubernatorial contender Ellen R. Sauerbrey won 53 percent of the vote in Howard in 1994, but managed only 46 percent against Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening this time.

Democratic county executive candidate James N. Robey won 55 percent of the vote, faring better than expected in every part of BTC the county against Schrader, a councilman whose moderate politics had appeared to put him in a position to win. Democratic council candidate Guy Guzzone won 58 percent of the vote against Republican Wanda Hurt in the swing district of southern Howard, which went Republican in 1994.

Republican victories in lower-profile elections and disparities in individual precinct returns suggest a few local factors were at work as well, including a rift between Schrader and his primary opponent, GOP Councilman Charles C. Feaga. Republicans won races for sheriff, court clerk and register of wills.

State's Attorney Marna L. McLendon, a Republican, trailed her Democratic challenger, Timothy J. McCrone, but has a chance to win on absentee votes, which are to be counted today.

In conservative western Howard, where Feaga's strong network of supporters apparently helped deliver votes for Democrat Robey, Schrader fared much worse than other Republicans on the ballot, including McLendon and County Council victor Allan H. Kittleman.

Feaga, still raw from being attacked by Schrader as "the developers' friend" in a primary campaign commercial, said yesterday the party has stepped backward 12 years, "splintered badly" and needs to get back to its roots. He wouldn't say for whom he voted in the executive's race, but he praised Robey, who had the support of some in Feaga's family.

The race "boiled down to personalities, too," Feaga said. "I believe that people felt like they could trust Jim Robey and they could talk to Jim Robey."

Schrader did not return telephone calls yesterday, but some of his supporters said the GOP rift likely cost him a couple of percentage points but not the election.

Democrats and some Republicans said issues may also have boosted Democrats in a few races, including Guzzone's in southern Howard. Guzzone won by a significantly wider margin than Robey in that district, which may reflect Guzzone's more clear-cut stand than Hurt's on managing growth.

Democrats and some Republicans said they also felt Democratic candidates scored points on education, casting Republicans as the bad guys in a bitter schools budget battle this year. Losing ground on such a key local issue made it even more difficult to stem the national Democratic tide.

"Basically, the Democrats took it to us," said council administrator Christopher Emery, a Republican who submitted his letter of resignation yesterday with the expectation the new 3-2 Democratic majority would want a new administrator. "Nationwide, I suppose people are ready for someone other than Newt Gingrich is my guess."

Pub Date: 11/05/98

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