New group puts focus on social problems


There's a new, more aggressive group interested in solving social problems in Howard County called People Acting Together in Howard.

The group, PATH, is having what it bills as a big, action-oriented gathering at 6:50 tonight at St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church, 5976 Old Washington Road in Elkridge.

Hector Rodriguez, 61, a 17-year resident of Owen Brown village, is the lead organizer for the group. It operates under the banner of the Industrial Areas Foundation, he said, which is an umbrella group that helps sponsor local organizations for social change.

Rodriguez said all political candidates are invited, and he hopes for a crowd of about 400 to talk about Howard's poor, the problems they encounter and - more importantly - what should be done about those problems.

The group, which is affiliated with the BUILD coalition that has aggressively pressed for changes in the way Baltimore officials handle community problems, has been invited to try organizing in Howard by a group of local religious leaders from various faiths, Rodriguez said.

"All you hear about here is, 'We're the richest and the best,'" he said. "We're sending our poor people to Baltimore."

"This county does not do a good job taking care of poor people," he added. "There's no question we have a great public sector and a corporate sector, but we don't have the civic sector - the third leg of the stool."

Problems with housing and transportation for lower-income people, along with the lack of shelter for the homeless, are problems Howard County should face more forthrightly, Rodriguez said.

The plan is to ask candidates to work with community groups to address those and other problems, work on organizing internally and then reconvene in the fall, he said.

Bank robbery

Former five-term County Councilman C. Vernon Gray had what he hopes will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience recently: being on the wrong end of a masked robber's gun during a bank holdup.

At the same time, he's pondering a repeat of an experience he's had numerous times: running for office.

The robbery experience seemed surreal at the time, Gray said, and the emotional shock didn't sink in until later.

Gray was one of about 15 people in the Citizens National Bank at Columbia Crossing just before noon June 2 when he heard a commotion and saw a masked man with a silver-colored handgun leap over the teller's counter. A second robber ordered everyone to the floor, Gray said. He recalled thinking as he got down, "No, this can't be happening."

No one was hurt, the robbers got some cash and fled, and police responded quickly, he said.

"Later, you think about what could have happened," Gray said.

Something else that the veteran politician is thinking about is whether to run for state Senate as the July 3 filing deadline nears for this year's elections.

Gray, a Democrat, ran for the District 13 Senate seat in 2002 and lost to incumbent Republican Sen. Sandra B. Schrader. But if he decides to take that plunge again, he would first have to defeat outgoing County Executive James N. Robey, also a Democrat, who staked his claim on the race last fall.

"I still have the interest," Gray said. "I have the knowledge of the issues, and I delivered good constituent services."

Robey said Gray has been talking about running for several months.

"I have no reaction one way or the other. I've wished him luck," Robey said, adding that he told Gray that if he runs and wins the primary he would have Robey's full support.

Robey said he hopes that the opposite result would put Gray in the executive's corner, too.

Smoking-ban fallout

For Kari Appler, executive director of the Smoke Free Maryland Coalition, Monday night's 3-2 County Council vote to ban smoking in all Howard restaurants and bars carried more than just implications for public health.

"It's definitely a line in the sand in the county executive race," she said after the vote, noting that the two council members running for county executive parted paths on the issue.

Council Chairman Christopher J. Merdon, an Ellicott City Republican, voted against the smoking ban, while west Columbia Democrat Ken Ulman voted for it. Both are candidates for executive.

"I was actually surprised that Merdon voted 'no,'" Appler said, feeling that the ban is popular among voters.

But her take on politics isn't shared by Donald F. Norris, public policy professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"There are a certain number of people who are single-issue voters, but I've never heard of a single-issue voter on the issue of smoking," Norris said. "You'll find them on issues like the environment or abortion. Overall, there will probably not be much impact, if any."

However, he said, some smokers who strongly oppose the ban might feel differently.

Republican Jim Adams of Ellicott City is happy the ban passed, but the anti-smoking District 5 County Council candidate also feels that the issue will play no part in the elections.

"I really think people will be happy that the ban is there, and they'll move on to other ... issues they want solved," he said.

Brian Harlin, county Republican Party chairman, said Merdon "stuck with what he believed in." Smoking won't be a big election issue, he said.

Tony McGuffin, Democratic Party chairman in Howard County, hopes that the vote will have an effect.

"I think it shows that Ken Ulman's priorities have to do with health," McGuffin said.

Voters will remember the issue, he said, because "we'll remind them."

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