A history of Howard County Council redistricting, part 9

Part 8 of this series covered the Howard County Council’s first exercise in drawing council district lines. We now turn to how that effort affected the 1986 council elections, the first in which council members were elected by districts:1

February-April 1986. The council once again approves the final district lines, this time via a council resolution rather than a bill, limiting the effect of any petition drive to put the plan to a referendum and ensuring that the 1986 elections will be held on a district basis. Council member Lloyd Knowles calls it the worst vote ever taken by the council and walks out of the meeting.2

Meanwhile more candidates enter the race for council seats in the new districts, joining previously-announced Council District 5 candidate Charles Feaga. Former council candidates Angela Beltram and Grace Kubofcik (who finished sixth and seventh respectively in the 1982 Democratic primary) announce their intention to run in Council District 2 (the Ellicott City district). They are joined by businessman John Cugle, who’s new to politics but not lacking in confidence (I’ve never lost anything in my life, and I don’t plan to start now.).

Council chair C. Vernon Gray, a recent migrant to Phelps Luck and Council District 3 (the east Columbia district), gets some good news as the Howard County Board of Elections issues a ruling that the two-year residency requirement in the amended charter does not apply to the 1986 election. Gray celebrates by formally filing as a candidate in District 3, though not without encountering another potential snag: Because Gray had previously neglected to formally inform the Howard County Board of Elections of his change of address, the board questions whether Gray is a qualified and registered voter in his district (as also required by the charter), and tells Gray it will accept his filing conditionally pending a legal ruling. Gray responds that he has never heard of such chicanery, and after he threatens a lawsuit the board backs down. Gray is joined as a District 3 candidate by Michael P. Hickey (not to be confused with the school superintendent), who touts his nine years of residence in east Columbia.

In west Columbia the Democratic field gets crowded as council incumbents Ruth Keeton and Lloyd Knowles face off against each other and against new candidate Don Carroll of Wilde Lake for the Council District 4 seat. At a fundraiser for Keeton Jim Rouse praises her as the first lady of Columbia, a model American woman, and a powerful, marvelous citizen. Knowles notes that Rouse had already contributed to his own campaign, and speculates that Rouse probably didn’t realize that he and Keeton were both running in the same district.

In the county executive race council members Elizabeth Bobo and James Clark (no relation to Sen. James Clark, Jr.) compete to be the successor to J. Hugh Nichols, and square off over the development of new shopping centers: Without planning, you have strips, says Clark; Bobo responds, You have to know when to say no to developers. Zoning becomes a more personal issue in the District 2 campaign, as John Cugle tangles with the Office of Planning and Zoning over a wall constructed at a house he’d purchased. Angela Beltram claims, I wouldn’t have confidence in someone who would [flout] the zoning law when he makes zoning decisions. Cugle laments, I’m guilty of making a nice place for people to live… The campaign lost because of a sheetrock wall? God!

(District lines now certain, February 6, 1986; Ex-aide opts for council, February 27, 1986, p. 16; Cugle bids for council, March 6, 1986, p. 18; District residency waived for 1986, March 6, 1986, p. 18; Gray files for reelection, March 20, 1996, p. 17; Hickey enters race for east Columbia, March 27, 1986, p. 23; Bash for Keeton draws big names, March 27, 1986, p. 23; Bobo, Clark take aim, April 10, 1986; Cugle irked, says he fixed zoning flaw, April 17, 1986, p. 24)

June-August 1986. On the Republican side, businessman and local sports star Gilbert South announces his intention to run for county executive against Elizabeth Bobo, as Eddie Murray of the Baltimore Orioles attends the announcement and is mobbed by fans crying Ed-dee, Ed-dee! What this means to me is indescribable, South says of Murray’s presence, though Murray notes that he’s not actually a resident of Howard County and that he didn’t know just yet whether he would campaign for South. South is joined by fellow Republican candidates Robert Flanagan and Chris McCabe, his companions in completing the recent Columbia Triathlon.

Current county executive J. Hugh Nichols stuns the council and other local politicians by announcing he’s resigning to accept a corporate job in New Orleans, and puts his house on the market that afternoon. Elizabeth Bobo claims that she’s not particularly surprised (He’s done it twice before with other offices) and notes that Nichols hasn’t been around much anyway. Nichols appoints county administrator William Eakle as acting county executive until September when Nichols’s accumulated leave runs out, after which the county charter requires that the council choose a successor of the same political party. Since Nichols was elected as a Democrat but then switched to become a Republican, this leaves you with something of a dilemma, Nichols jokes to C. Vernon Gray.

As the deadline for filing approaches, more candidates come forward to contest the council district elections: Republican James Holway (a former council member) files in Council District 1, Robert Belsinger makes a last-minute decision to join three other Democratic candidates in District 2 (A lot of friends thought I should [run]), and Republican Charles Feaga sees three Democratic candidates vie to oppose him in District 5. No Republican candidates file in Districts 3 and 4 by the deadline, but the Howard County Republican Central Committee finds two more candidates, Kay Koontz and William McDill, willing to compete in those districts, as part of its successful effort to field candidates for every local race.3

Howard County Republicans receive further good news as an increase in registered Republicans and a decline in registered Democratic produces a net gain of 3,027 registered voters, with six precincts (out of 62) now having a Republican majority (up from none ten months earlier). However Republicans still face a 1.78-to-1 Democratic edge in registered voters.4

The more intense competition for council district seats results in an increased emphasis on fundraising. C. Vernon Gray raises almost $33,000 for his campaign through the middle of August, almost eight times that of his opponent, Michael P. Hickey, who professes himself amazed and shocked that somebody is raising that kind of money for a councilmanic election. Ruth Keeton raises over $20,000 for her council race in District 4, an amount opponent Lloyd Knowles calls almost obscene: That’s something like two and one-half bucks for every Democrat in my district.5

(Republicans go South for exec, June 19, 1986, p. 25; Hugh calls it quits, July 3, 1986, p. 1; County races fill on last filing day, July 3, 1986, p. 20; Local filers listed, July 3, 1986, p. 21; GOP will compete in every local race, July 17, 1986, p. 19; GOP nets over 1,600 county voters, July 31, 1986, p. 27; Fund-raising called shocking, obscene, August 28, 1986, p. 21)

In part 10 we’ll continue to follow the council campaigns of 1986 through the primary and general elections.

UPDATE: It was pointed out to me in private correspondence that I was underestimating fundraising for Mary Kay Sigaty in the 2010 election cycle, since she also received support from the separate Team 4 Slate. I’ve corrected the relevant footnote below.


1. All article references in this post are to the Columbia Flier; articles are available on microfilm at the Central Branch of the Howard County Library. The Flier, the Howard County Times, and the Baltimore Sun do not have online archives for this period.

2. Recall from part 6 of this series that the charter amendment of 1984 that introduced voting by districts did not specify the exact manner by which the council was to adopt district boundaries. As previously noted in part 8, the county’s solicitor originally recommended passing the redistricting plan as a resolution, but the council decided to pass it as a bill in order to have it incorporated into the county code. However if a petition drive had been successful in forcing a referendum, because the plan was passed as a bill the effect of the bill would have been suspended pending the outcome of the referendum—in other words, the 1986 election would have been another at-large election.

For the exact description of the council district boundaries see 1986-CR-029, Resolution for the purpose of establishing councilmanic districts for Howard County, in accordance with provisions of the Howard County Charter (adopted February 3, 1986); thanks go to Stephen LeGendre, Administrator to the Howard County Council, for providing an electronic copy of the resolution.

3. The complete list of council candidates in 1986 was as follows, with incumbents noted with an asterisk:

  • District 1 (Elkridge/Savage/North Laurel): Shane Pendergrass, Mitchell Egber, and Charles Wehland (D); James Holway and Marilyn McNeill (R); Lewis Andrews (Ind).
  • District 2 (Ellicott City): Robert Belsinger, Angela Beltram, John Cugle, and Grace Kubofcik (D); Darrel Drown (R).
  • District 3 (east Columbia): C. Vernon Gray (*) and Michael P. Hickey (D); Kay Koontz (R); Harry Dunbar (Ind).
  • District 4 (west Columbia): Donald Carroll, Ruth Keeton (*), and Lloyd Knowles (*) (D); Bill McDill (R).
  • District 5 (western Howard): Alice Bender, Charles Boender, and Larry Yeager (D); Charles Feaga (R).

Note that Lewis Andrews and Harry Dunbar ran as independents and hence did not compete in the primaries.

4. Recall from part 7 that in 1985 Democrats had an almost 2-to-1 edge in registered voters, with the goal of Howard County Republicans being to reduce that to 1.5-to-1.

5. C. Vernon Gray’s $32,898 in funds raised through the middle of August 1986 (the most of any candidate) would be equivalent to over $65,000 in 2010, according to the CPI inflation calculator from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The approximately $2.50 per registered Democrat claimed by Lloyd Knowles to be raised by Ruth Keeton at that point in the cycle would be equivalent to about $5 per Democrat today.

To put these figures in perspective, in 2010 Mary Kay Sigaty ran in a roughly equivalent council district to that of Keeton, and like her also faced significant opposition in the Democratic primary (from Alan Klein); Sigaty raised $43,562 over the entire 2010 cycle under her own name and also was the beneficiary of support from the Team 4 Slate, which raised $49,550. If we assume as a first-order approximation that all the Team 4 Slate funds were intended for support of Sigaty then this would amount to a total of $93,112 or about $2.20 almost $5 for each of the registered Democrats in her district (19,779 at the time of the primary), roughly equal to what Ruth Keeton had raised at an earlier point in the cycle.

The top fundraiser among all the 2010 council candidates was Courtney Watson, who raised over $170,000 in the 2010 election cycle, over $10 per registered Democrat in her district and about $5.30 per registered voter; Watson faced no opposition in the primary but significant opposition in the general election (from Robert Flanagan). Note that this can’t be directly compared to C. Vernon Gray’s $32,898 noted above, even inflation-adjusted, since the figure quoted for Gray doesn’t cover the entire 1986 election cycle, but it does give at least a rough feel for the relative cost of campaigns then and now.

(Campaign finance statistics for 2010 are from the Maryland Elections Center. Voter registration statistics for the 2010 elections are from the official 2010 primary results and the unofficial 2010 general election results. For more background on 2010 campaign finances see the Baltimore Sun stories Ulman spreads the wealth from campaign reserve and Political Notebook: Ulman, Democrats flush with cash.)