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December 14, 2005

Politics in the Enchanted Forest

Kevin E. Dayhoff

The political silly season has already begun in Howard County, known as the former home of the "Enchanted Forest." In our neighboring county, politics have recently started to resemble the storybook theme park that prospered in Ellicott City from 1955 to 1988.

There are many political dramas currently being acted-out in the Enchanted Forest. One of them has incumbent Republican Sandra Schrader facing a challenge for the Maryland Senate seat in District 13 from outgoing Democrat Howard County Executive James N. Robey.

Some conversational familiarity with Howard County’s political dynamics may very well provide some insight into just how crazy the 2006 elections will develop – locally and statewide.

Bear in mind many political observers are saying: that Howard County is shaping up to be a key “battleground in efforts to expand GOP strength statewide…”

Howard County is governed by a county executive – county council form of government. Mr. Robey is the current county executive, first elected in 1998 and is currently serving his second term. He was the Howard County police chief from 1991-1998.

The county executive is limited to two terms and – as part of the recent political excitement in Howard County – he is moving within the county to a locale where he will challenge state Senator Schrader, in a district which includes North Laurel, Savage, Jessup, Elkridge, Clarksville, Fulton, Highland and most of east Columbia.

The opinion of the movers and shakers, who keep track of such things, is that Mr. Robey, who has lived in the Ellicott City (District 9) area all his life, will be leaving his childhood haunts for greener political pastures. Read: where he wouldn’t have to run against the popular District 9 Republican Sen. Allan H. Kittleman, who represents western Howard County and southern Carroll County.

Apparently County Executive Robey ran a poll several months ago to see just where he was going to live after leaving the Howard County executive offices, err, I mean, whether or not he could beat Senator Kittleman in the 2006 election.

Looks like Mr. Robey is the larger-than-life Mother Goose that laid a big storybook egg as the idea of moving for political convenience has gone over in Howard County like a lead balloon. That stated, conventional wisdom is that he is very popular with the voters, who can be conveniently unforgiving in the voting booth.

Political junkies may remember that he defeated Senator Schrader’s husband in the 1998 Howard County executive race. Dennis Schrader, former Navy captain, medical school administrator and Howard County councilman, is currently serving as director of Maryland's Office of Homeland Security.

Mr. Robey was quoted in a Howard County Times’ article as touting issues such as “funding education, ensuring safe communities and reducing the cost of health care.”

However, critics have been particularly disparaging as they have noted that Mr. Robey began his pre-season election campaign running on the pandering fad politics of red-light and speeding cameras and banning smoking in bars and restaurants; this after increasing the billion-dollar Howard County budget by over 10%.

Many politicos have cried foul in the matter of Mr. Robey’s newly found interest in the smoking ban, claiming that he put the bill before the Howard County Council as a shallow political maneuver to strengthen his senatorial campaign.

A majority of the five-member county council has stated that they will oppose the legislation because it would harm too many small businesses, many of which just spent large sums of money to comply with a 1996 partial smoking ban in the establishments.

In contrast, Republican Sandra Schrader worked for former Senator Martin Madden in District 13 for 10 years. She was appointed to his seat when he left office in 2002.

A moderate with wide bipartisan appeal, Senator Schrader later defeated veteran Howard County Councilmember and Democrat C. Vernon Gray, in an election that caught the attention of many political observers and highlighted her extensive grass-roots knowledge of her district, sharp political acumen and growing influence.

Both Senator Schrader’s and Senator Kittleman’s names have been mentioned as possible candidates to replace Michael Steele on Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich’s ticket next year.

Mr. Robey has gone out of his way to publicly remark about his differences with Governor Ehrlich; acrimoniously claiming, in part, that he was figuratively "non-existent as far as the governor is concerned."

Meanwhile, Senator Schrader has worked hard to support Ehrlich administration initiatives, provide excellent constituent service and represent Howard County and citizens throughout the state extremely well.

Critics claim Mr. Robey has literally been “non-existent” in District 13 all his life. Changing one’s address for political purposes is shallow politics in a most unappealing light – especially in an effort to unseat an elected official with a proven record of accomplishment in serving her constituency well.

Memo to the Democratic Party: it is about vision and solutions, not about superficial politics. In the increasing sea change towards a two-party leadership form of government in Annapolis, Democrats will have to defend their failed policies and pandering initiatives with the voters. This new sense of accountability will not take into consideration the arrogance of doing anything you want simply based on having enough votes to do whatever you please.

Political junkies quietly understand that Senator Schrader has a hard campaign ahead of her, but in the land of the Enchanted Forest, Jim Robey’s political aspirations will not have a storybook ending. Senator Schrader will ultimately prevail because of a combination of her solid leadership, excellent representation and the changing political winds in Howard County.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. E-mail him at:

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