Could Adler surprise Robey?


With an entrenched, seemingly popular Howard County Democrat campaigning for a second term as county executive, how could a newcomer - a political novice - ever hope to prevail?

Ask Elizabeth Bobo, who days before her 450-vote defeat a dozen years ago was thought by most observers to be a shoo-in for a second term.

"Oh, God, everybody thought we were out of our minds," said Carol Arscott, Republican Party chief at the time, recalling their wooing of associate Howard school superintendent Charles I. Ecker to retire and run against Bobo.

So, is Democratic County Executive James N. Robey seeing political ghosts as he campaigns for a second term? Can the Republicans do it again - this time with Savage Mill operator Steven H. Adler?

"I'm not worried," Robey said, "but I'm not [over] confident either. I said all along I would take everyone who ran against me very seriously."

Adler, the Republican businessman who just announced his campaign to unseat Robey, criticizes him for not anticipating the recession's full impact and leaving the county facing a projected $18 million budget shortfall this year.

Robey, he says, "stayed popular and said 'yes' to too many people." Now, Adler predicts, the executive will have to use money from the county's Rainy Day Fund to get through this year, and then will have to raise taxes to get through next year.

"We will deal with it. We will get through it," Robey said. Promises can't be made yet about taxes, he said. "It would be irresponsible."

That discussion may sound familiar, since a recession was starting in 1990 as the Bobo-Ecker campaign progressed. And then, as now, there was debate over the pace of development, and over school crowding, too.

But the similarities may be only skin deep, say people involved in those issues - though no one will know for sure until the ballots are counted in November.

For one thing, there was no Rainy Day Fund when the last recession hit, there was an undercurrent of anti-incumbent unrest nationally, and Howard's development wars were a lot hotter then.

"You kinda get a buzz. There was an overconfidence [among Democrats]," Arscott said.

But unlike Bobo, Robey appears to be the darling of the county's business community, which has contributed the lion's share of his campaign kitty, and has lavished praise to the point that Republicans have complained publicly.

"He's very popular," said Chip Lundy, an Ecker supporter and a developer who is president and CEO of The Williamsburg Group. "It's business as usual - almost like a third term to Chuck Ecker," he said.

And despite sharp controversies during Robey's term about the Maple Lawn and Emerson mixed-use developments in Fulton and North Laurel, the former police chief seems to have escaped the brunt of the hard feelings.

Bobo, by comparison, was the lightning rod for 1990s battles.

"I think it was really a matter of her being pinched from two sides," plus a national anti-incumbent attitude that saw lots of surprise losses, said J. Brad Coker, a Columbia pollster whose early results showed significant unhappiness with Bobo. Those polls encouraged Ecker not only to run, but to sink $30,000 of his own money into the campaign.

The slow-growth activists felt Bobo was allowing the county to grow too quickly, Coker said, and Bobo's late-term attempts to sharply limit new home construction angered the business community, too.

"There was a less-than-friendly attitude toward the business community. We just weren't happy campers," remembered Dick Pettingill, Howard County Chamber of Commerce president then.

But John Taylor, a western county development foe, felt Bobo was too cozy with business.

Although he's made his peace with her and thinks she's doing well as a member of the House of Delegates, back then, "I thought she was evil incarnate." He believed Bobo's proposals to curb growth were mostly political damage control, he said.

Meanwhile, Ecker's aggressive campaign was using polls, constant criticism and suggestive polling questions to gain ground, little by little.

"Liz was high-profile," Taylor said. "Robey is a good old boy. A nice guy. He's in the Chuck Ecker mold."

Ecker, who is now Carroll County's school superintendent, says overconfidence among Democrats helped him in 1990, but he doesn't sense the dissatisfaction now that he did then. "I just ran at the right time."

Almost any one of a number of factors can mean victory or defeat in a race decided by 450 votes out of 50,000, Ecker noted.

"We were convinced [Bobo] was going on network TV," said Arscott, wondering if that would have saved the election for Bobo, who ended the campaign with $47,000 in the bank.

Bobo now says she knew for months there was trouble in 1990.

"I was not shocked. I was saying for a couple of months that I was very concerned.

"I had the strongest growth-control record of anyone in Maryland. Of course, there were people who wanted me to stop growth," she said.

That, she feels, cost her.

"It was a very well-organized development community that reached out to all their ancillary workers, plus they did a very skillful job of polling by suggestion," she said. "Chuck made the campaign successful."

Coker says things remain unpredictable in politics.

"In this day and age really nothing is surprising because the political pendulum can swing pretty quick," Coker said.

Robey is "going to hit some rough waters. He raised taxes with a surplus. He's vulnerable on taxes and development, but you need a candidate who's well-funded. There's potential there," Coker said.

"If the Republican Party is going to put up somebody to take out Robey, they're going to find a wealthy businessman type who has deep pockets."

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