Retro HoCo: When Howard County voters elected their first county executive

An election where 75 percent of the electorate turns out? That’s almost unheard of these days; just over 54 percent of Howard County voters cast ballots in 2014, just over 60 percent in 2010. But 50 years ago, three-quarters of the county’s registered voters (which newspaper accounts said was a record turnout) took sides on whether Howard should adopt charter government and have a county executive and council.

The vote, which abolished the system of having three elected county commissioners that had been in place since 1914, wasn’t even close — 6,645 for charter government, 5,094 against. That wasn’t surprising; according to a report in The Sun that ran two days before the Nov. 5, 1968, election, “Virtually all Howard County officials have come out firmly in favor of the charter, and an aggressive committee has campaigned for it throughout the county.”

Still, forecasters had been surprised the previous May when ratification of a proposed new Maryland constitution had been defeated by more than 80,000 votes. And charter backers noted, with some trepidation, that polls leading up to Election Day showed that 50 percent of adults had yet to decide on whether they wanted a charter or not.

Clearly, most did.

Voters that November also picked candidates to run for the about-to-be established post of county executive. Democrats, in a hotly contested race that The Sun characterized as “a bitter factional fight,” chose Howard High School principal Omar J. Jones over Harry T. Murphy, president of the county commissioners. The Republican nominee would be county chief of police Jack L. Larrimore, a surprise candidate who likely was running, The Sun reported, because of doubts he would be re-appointed by a newly elected county executive.

Those fears proved spot-on. When voters elected Jones in a Jan. 22, 1969, special election — following what Sun reporter Peter C. Muncie called a “completely fury-less and almost sound-less campaign” — he wasted little time in clarifying his opponent’s job prospects.

“To avoid speculation,” he told the election night crowd at Democratic party headquarters, “I will say that Mr. Larrimore is not in consideration for the office of police chief.”

Worth noting: Only 39 percent of Howard’s 22,500 voters cast ballots in the county executive race. Seems voters were more interested in having a county executive than in actually giving someone the job.

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