In this post I continue the story of the 1998 elections for Howard County Council that I began in part 20 of this series.
August 1998. As Guy Guzzone faces no opposition in the District 3 Democratic primary his would-be Republican opponent, ex-Democrat Wanda Hurt, has her party credentials questioned by her primary opponent,
lifelong Republican Kirk Halpin. (Hurt protests:
I was miserable as an active Democrat in this county. I suffered a heck of a lot.) Though Hurt is backed by incumbent Dennis Schrader, the endorsement of the Baltimore Sun goes to Halpin for his
The Sun also endorses Christopher Merdon in the District 1 Republican primary, C. Vernon Gray in the District 2 Democratic primary, and Debra Ann Slack-Katz and Allan Kittleman in the District 5 Democratic and Republican primaries respectively. Meanwhile in District 4 self-described
moderate Republican Greg Fox has a 3-1 fundraising advantage over his general election opponent, Democrat Mary Lorsung, raising hopes of GOP success in November. (Claims Dennis Schrader’s pollster J. Brad Coker,
The county has a slight Republican lean. There have always been a lot of Democrats with conservative feelings.)
(Gady Epstein, August 16, 1998, 1B;
Halpin for GOP in District 3, Baltimore Sun, August 19, 1998, 16A; August 17, 1998, 6A; August 18, 1998, 8A; August 20, 1998, 18A; August 24, 1998, 1B.)
September 1998. As the primary approaches, Howard County Republicans find themselves in the unlikely position of having vigorous primary battles for county executive and three of five county council seats, with the fights being variously cast as
old Howard vs.
new Howard, youth vs. age, conservatives vs. moderates, or just a matter of differing personalities and styles. On primary day itself the Republican nominations go to Christopher Merdon in District 1, Wanda Hurt in District 3, and Allan Kittleman in District 5, with C. Vernon Gray once again easily winning the Democratic nomination in District 2 and Debra Ann Slack-Katz winning the right to face Allan Kittleman in District 5.2
October 1998. The battle in District 3 goes to the air waves, as both Democrat Guy Guzzone and Republican Wanda Hurt air television commercials in what is widely seen as the key race for control of the county council. Meanwhile Hurt and other GOP council candidates join county executive candidate Dennis Schrader in touting their support for education and trying to put behind them Charles Ecker’s controversial decision to not fully fund the Board of Education request and instead go for a small tax cut. (Guzzone dismisses the joint announcement as a
Republicans also address that other perennial county issue, development, with Allan Kittleman and Christopher Merdon proposing restrictions on residential growth. Schrader praises Kittleman’s and Merdon’s
good ideas (while declining to fully endorse them) and separately calls for redevelopment of the U.S. Route 1 corridor in eastern Howard. Merdon’s focus on managing development doesn’t help him with the Baltimore Sun however, as the Sun endorses his Democratic opponent George Layman, pointing to his experience with county zoning issues.
In other races, Greg Fox hopes his
high energy pays off with a win in District 4 against Democratic incumbent Mary Lorsung, and District 5 candidate Debra Ann Slack-Katz laments the Democrats being
late on the draw in matching the coordinated messaging put forth by the county’s Republican candidates (
I would have liked to have had more exposure, quite honestly). District 3 candidate Guy Guzzone is the exception among the Democrats, as he continues his campaign blitz of TV ads, mailers, knocking on doors, and personalized notes to voters. (
This is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever worked at in all my life, he observes.) His reward is a Baltimore Sun endorsement; the Sun also endorses incumbents C. Vernon Gray and Mary Lorsung, as well as first-time candidate Allan Kittleman.
(Gady Epstein, October 5, 1998, 1B; Gady Epstein, October 7, 1998, 1B; October 15, 1998, 3B; Jamal Watson, October 22, 3B; October 26, 1998, 8A; Gady Epstein, October 28, 1998, 1B; October 28, 18A; October 27, 14A; October 29, 20A; October 30, 18A.)
November 1998. Former council member Dennis Schrader’s bet on moving up to the county executive position proves to be a loss twice over for Howard County Republicans, as Democrat James Robey defeats him by a comfortable 55-45% margin and Wanda Hurt, his would-be successor in District 3, is crushed by Guy Guzzone 58-42%. Democratic council incumbents C. Vernon Gray and Mary Lorsung win re-election by equally impressive margins in Columbia-dominated Districts 2 and 4 respectively. Christopher Merdon and Allan Kittleman retain Districts 1 and 5 respectively for Republicans, with Kittleman in particular rolling up the highest vote totals of any council candidate. However Hurt’s loss means that control of the county council passes to the Democrats.3
Although some of the blame for the reversal is attached to Schrader (who performed less well than other Republicans in District 5, home of his GOP primary opponent Charles Feaga), Howard County Republicans and others see the results as reflecting national trends, including most notably the unpopularity of Newt Gingrich and the GOP congressional majority. (
I went down and checked off every Democratic box, even for people I didn’t know, says one voter.
I think Newt Gingrich is disgusting.) County GOP chair Carol Arscott comments,
I’ve coined a new phrase: All politics is national. I understand now how the Democrats felt in 1994.
(Gady Epstein, November 4, 1998, 8D; Gady Epstein, November 4, 1998, 1D; Gady Epstein, November 5, 1998, 1C.)
December 1998. Republican county executive Charles Ecker steps down and the 3-2 Republican council majority ends, as Democrat James Robey becomes county executive and Democratic incumbents C. Vernon Gray and Mary Lorsung are joined by Guy Guzzone to create a 3-2 Democratic majority on the county council. Gray is elected chair of the council and Lorsung vice chair.
The newly-sworn-in officeholders shy away from talk of radical changes and emphasize the need for unity in addressing challenges facing the county. However, as the Baltimore Sun notes,
Party differences are likely to harden when the council handles redistricting after the 2000 census. The power to draw new councilmanic districts is perhaps the Democrats’ biggest prize for reclaiming the majority, giving the party a chance to solidify its base by shifting conservative voters from the three Democratic-held districts.
Thus did the brief era of Republican dominance in Howard County end, with the GOP having the ill-luck of prevailing in the only county election of the 1990s that had no impact on council redistricting. In the next post we’ll see how the new electoral dynamics affected council redistricting after the 2000 census.
1. The Sun article
Hurt finds peace in GOP on the dispute between Wanda Hurt and Kirk Halpin is noteworthy for two reasons. First, it highlights the extent to which the Howard County Republican party during its era of electoral success was populated by ex-Democrats and others who in the current climate would likely be characterized as ↩
2. The official 1998 primary election results for the county executive and county council races were as follows (incumbents are marked with an asterisk):
- County executive (R): Dennis Schrader, 7,559 (52%); Charles Feaga, 6,902 (48%).
- District 1 (R): Christopher Merdon, 1,980 (68%); Timothy McCoy, 929 (32%).
- District 2 (D): C. Vernon Gray (*), 3,019 (79%); James Fitzgerald, 826 (21%).
- District 3 (R): Wanda Hurt, 1,443 (71%); Kirk Halpin, 584 (29%).
- District 5 (D): Debra Ann Slack-Katz, 1,978 (65%); Bernard Hoppinger, 1,078 (35%).
- District 5 (R): Allan Kittleman, 2,665 (58%); Gail Bates, 1,620 (35%); James Adams, 191 (4%); Xaver Gramkow, 89 (2%).
James Robey was unopposed in the Democratic primary for county executive, as were the Democratic candidates in Council Districts 1, 3, and 4, and the Republican candidates in Council Districts 2 and 4.
3. The official 1998 general election results for the county executive and county council races were as follows (incumbents are marked with an asterisk):
- County executive: James Robey (D), 44,960 (55%); Dennis Schrader (R), 36,746 (45%).
- District 1: Christopher Merdon (R), 9,560 (59%); George Layman (D), 6,676 (41%).
- District 2: C. Vernon Gray (D) (*), 9,289 (60%); Susan Cook (R), 6,204 (40%).
- District 3: Guy Guzzone (D), 7,679 (58%); Wanda Hurt (R), 5,522 (42%).
- District 4: Mary Lorsung (D) (*), 9,466 (58%); Gregory Fox (R), 6,765 (42%).
- District 5: Allan Kittleman (R), 12,071 (64%); Debra Ann Slack-Katz (D), 6,853 (36%).
Turnout for the 1998 general election was 64%, down considerably from the almost 70% turnout in the 1994 general election but significantly higher than the 57% turnout in 1990. Democratic turnout was slightly higher than Republican turnout (68% vs. 66%). Of those voting, the party breakdown was 50.4% Democratic, 37.5% Republican, and 12.1% independent (i.e., unaffiliated or registered with other parties). Compared to 1994 Democrats made up 1% less of the electorate and independents about 1% more, with Republicans remaining the same as a percentage of the electorate.
(Election results are from the Howard County 1998 general election returns page hosted by the Maryland State Archives. Turnout figures are from my blog post ↩