Schoeffield has hope of 'Rocky' election victory


They played the theme from Rocky at underdog Republican Clark J. Schoeffield's $20-a- ticket Italian buffet fund-raiser at the Ellicott City VFW recently, and with good reason.

Like the well-remembered Sylvester Stallone character who leaped from local pug to Philadelphia's boxing hero, Schoeffield hopes to jump from obscure businessman to county executive - against all odds. Despite confidence and vigorous campaigning, many county political veterans are skeptical.

"He has no chance at all. Not even a slight chance" in the Sept. 10 Republican primary for Howard County executive, said Charles C. Feaga, a Republican and former member of the County Council who lost a similar primary contest four years ago.

With a low turnout expected, Schoeffield and his supporters do not see it that way, despite his late entry opposing Steven H. Adler, 49, the party-backed GOP candidate. County Executive James N. Robey, 61, a Democrat, has no primary opponent.

"I can win," Schoeffield, a tall, 40-year-old entrepreneur, told a crowd of about 65 people - mostly neighbors, relatives or friends - at the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall.

People will respond to his message, he said - that dense development has caused problems in Howard County, including budget deficits and school crowding, and that developers should pay more of the costs of that growth.

Schoeffield put up $28,000 of his own money to jump-start his last-minute entry into the race.

But in a quiet political year with no major development controversy under way, most observers feel Schoeffield's message is falling on deaf ears.

Development is "always a key component to the elections in Howard County, but I don't sense that urgency out there," said Darrell E. Drown, a former Republican councilman.

"Right today, there are no hot-button proposals floating around like Maple Lawn Farms," agreed John Taylor, a veteran slow-growth activist in the county.

Still, some see Schoeffield as an aggressive candidate, though without Adler's party support or money. Both men are community college graduates with a background in business.

Adler reported raising $58,454 through Aug. 25, and is preparing his first commercial for cable television broadcast after spending weeks waving signs at motorists, attending Republican and community events, and knocking on doors.

He has accused Schoeffield of being a "one-issue candidate" and of "trying to demonize builders and developers," a charge the Worthington-area resident denies. Both men say they can keep taxes from rising yet still provide more services by cutting waste.

But Adler has predicted that his main theme - the budget deficit that will force the first withdrawal from the county's "rainy day fund" since its creation a decade ago - is rapidly shrinking in significance.

And his accusations that Robey has too many police officers in desk jobs while robbery and burglary rates rose last year were undermined by the latest crime figures showing a 17 percent decline in violent crime for the first half of this year.

Although Robey got County Council approval to withdraw up to $15 million from the $28 million fund to cover the shortfall, if needed, Adler has predicted that the final amount may be $7 million or lower. Robey confirmed the shortfall will be "considerably, considerably" lower than $15 million, though a final figure will depend on state-distributed revenues.

If those predictions come true, Adler's attempt to paint Robey as an inefficient big spender may be weakened. Adler disagrees.

"To some degree, the growth in the government is still the growth in government. How is he [Robey] going to deal with tougher issues next year? How is he going to get money back in the rainy day fund?" Adler asked.

He pointed out that the recession forced the county to forgo saving money for new vehicles this year, while taking $1.7 million in recreation and parks funds that had built up over a period of years.

Adler insists he can do better, based on cost-cutting skills honed during his years in the clothing business and as operating partner at Savage Mill.

"I've actually implemented and done these things," he said.

And although, for example, raising county teachers' salaries (which rank in the middle of Maryland's 24 jurisdictions) would be expensive - $2.5 million for each 1 percent pay increase - "if we get rid of all the waste in Howard County government, there's plenty of money to go into the school system," Adler said.

Robey's strength, most observers agree is that he is a likable, low-key consensus builder who has worked to give the public what it wants during his term - more and better schools, better-paid and better-equipped public servants, and economic growth.

With Howard one of America's wealthiest counties and strict new growth limits in the new General Plan, Robey said, he has kept his promises and the county's business community is strongly in his corner.

"Jim is well-known now, and he hasn't made many enemies," said Feaga, a longtime friend.

Adler, too, is a quiet man by nature, which has meant a generally quiet election season.

Robey promises no exciting new developments in a second term, just more of the same: building a new senior center in Glenelg and a new training facility for county fire and police personnel, and working on the "never-ending" need for more school construction.

Now, the biggest headache is getting through the drought, Robey said.

Also, he said, western Howard's heavily traveled two-lane Route 32 needs safety-related changes, even if it is not widened west of Clarksville, and the county needs to find more ways to use the $15 million set aside for agricultural preservation so it can buy development rights on more farms.

His campaign has been fairly laid-back, despite the $175,491 he reported raising through last month because "my job is campaigning - I've been campaigning since Dec. 7, 1998." Knocking on doors and using other traditional campaign methods, Robey said, means having to turn down community and civic requests for appearances.

As a former career police officer, he said, "I disagree with standing along the street waving at cars. It's not the time I want people distracted."

As a public official and a candidate, Robey said, he is working harder this year than he did in 1998, but "I'm a lot more confident than I was four years ago." His cable television commercials will begin airing after the primary, he said.

Schoeffield believes that too much development has caused budget-straining school expenses, clogged traffic and allowed crime to outpace the county's ability to keep up.

"I'm for slower, more managed growth in Howard County" and billing developers for more of the tab for new schools, roads and utilities, Schoeffield said.

Adler argues that that approach would be self-defeating because those charges would be passed on to customers.

At his event, Schoeffield's supporters talked about why they feel county officials "are in the pocket of developers," according to Jeff Metter, 55, a four-year neighbor of Schoeffield.

He and other Worthington residents are still angry that the county built a connection between Hale Haven and Doncaster drives, allowing heavy traffic from Route 103 that would otherwise use Worthington Way to come through their quiet residential streets.

It was a long fight settled by a County Council vote in May 1998, but the road was opened only recently.

"Sit on that road and watch all the cars go by because of poor planning by the county," Metter said.

Nancy Snyder, 66, another neighbor who has known Schoeffield since he was 5 years old, said she admires his willingness to jump into the election.

"We've seen our community change. It seems like overbuilding, and overcrowding in the schools.

"You hear people gripe and complain. I give him [Schoeffield] a lot of credit," Snyder said, for taking action.

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