Robey, GOP eyeing future


To Louis M. Pope, Howard County's Republican Party leader, Democratic County Executive James N. Robey is "a likable guy. A nice guy who hasn't made a lot of waves and hasn't made a lot of enemies."

Charles C. Feaga Sr., a self-described "Bush Republican" who lost a bid for Robey's job two years ago, says Robey "is a good, decent individual," a "straight shooter" and a personal friend for 20 years.

And although Howard's Republicans insist they will run a strong, credible candidate for Howard's top office in two years who will remind voters of Democrats' tax increases, right now they can't name anyone who might make that race. Robey, who says he hasn't decided whether to run for re-election, is raising money nonetheless.

Breakfast with the former police chief cost $125 a person Friday morning at an Ellicott City restaurant, attracting enough business people to give the Democrat a hoped-for $12,000 in seed money for a possible larger event during the winter.

With developer Stuart J. Greenebaum in his audience, Robey praised business leaders for their contributions to the county's prosperity, and specifically Greenebaum's controversial Maple Lawn mixed-use development proposal in Fulton - now before the Howard County Zoning Board.

"What Stuart's doing is so perfect for Howard County," Robey said. "My support has been there for this project from the beginning."

Co-sponsors David M. Abramson, vice president of U.S. Foodservice, and builder Harry "Chip" Lundy, president and CEO of Williamsburg Group, said Robey is an unassuming public servant who knows how to balance business and community interests.

"Obviously, I'll have a decision to make early next year," Robey said before the event. "I want to weigh the public's reaction, and if they think I've done a good job, there's no reason why I wouldn't [run]," assuming his health remains good and his family approves, he said.

Other politicians who did not attend the fund-raiser agreed Robey is likely to seek a second term and looks hard to beat.

"I don't see how anybody could seriously challenge Robey at this point. He's done a good job," said C. Vernon Gray, a Columbia Democrat and four-term County Council member.

And western county Republican Councilman Allan H. Kittleman said he would "be very surprised" if Robey does not run for re-election.

As a 59-year-old Howard native, retired from a 32-year county police career, Robey has a unique political advantage - he appeals to Democrats and some Republicans.

That came in handy in the 1998 race, when the county's Republicans tore themselves apart in a fractious primary between Feaga, another old-line countian and county councilman, and fellow Councilman Dennis R. Schrader, a more moderate Republican who moved to the county in 1987. Schrader won the primary, but lost the general election, partly because many of Feaga's supporters backed his pal, Robey.

"I think he's [Robey] proved himself to be a pretty clever politician in the way he ran his race. He was clever in the way he was able to get support from both sides," said Democratic Del. Elizabeth Bobo of Columbia, a former county executive and council member.

Bobo lost her re-election bid in 1990 amid a statewide wave of voter discontent that brought another career civil servant, former school administrator Charles I. Ecker, a Republican, to power. Bobo does not think Robey's likely to be upset.

"He's is basically a low-key guy," she said. "It looks like he's in a pretty good position. He's done a good job being very visible and keeping in touch with diverse groups."

Lundy, a Republican and Ecker supporter, is supporting Robey. "I don't think in local politics party matters," he said.

Charles Sharp, a Glenwood builder and another Republican, likes Robey's county roots. "He gets a free point there," he said.

Robey says he likes his job. "At times, it's difficult but very fulfilling. I know I haven't made everyone happy," he said.

Unlike his first campaign, he won't wait until the last minute to begin raising money, although he doesn't expect to need much more than the $116,000 he spent during the last election.

According to his last campaign finance report, filed in November, Robey's committee had $3,136.12 on hand.

However much money he raises, he won't have a free ride, Republicans vow, noting Democrat-inspired increases in the county's fire tax and property tax under Robey.

"I'm sure we'll have a very strong Republican candidate," said Republican state Sen. Martin G. Madden, the Senate minority leader .

"There's a propensity of Democratic incumbents to raise taxes. They did raise taxes the first year," Madden said. If Robey raises taxes in the third or fourth year of his administration, he'll pay a political price for it, Madden said.

"Those tax increases and spending policies are going to come back to haunt him," Pope said.

The fact that Democratic council members raised the property tax rate 2 cents in 1999 against Robey's wishes won't matter, Madden and Pope said.

"The perception is the party in power raised taxes," Madden said.

Also, most political activists are preoccupied with the presidential campaigns now.

If Republicans do well this year, the Democratic tide of 1998 could wane, Pope said.

"Somebody will run. We'll find someone," Kittleman said.

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