ELLICOTT CITY – Mr. Hickenbottom’s class of energetic third graders sat anxiously as they waited to hear Charles “Chuck” Ecker talk about Howard County.
Ecker played a game of county “Trivial Pursuit,” asking the Longfellow Elementary School students how many roads are in the county and how many snowplows it owns, rewarding the right answers with miniature Howard County flags.
In the corner, a brown-haired child murmured, “Is he the governor?”
“No, but he sure is running,” replied teacher David “Casey” Hickenbottom.
Ecker, who is completing his eighth year as Howard County executive, is running what some say is a long-shot and divisive campaign for governor. He hopes to wrangle the Republican gubernatorial nomination from Ellen Sauerbrey, the favorite, who lost the 1994 election to Gov. Parris Glendening by just under 6,000 votes.
To those who accuse Ecker of dividing the Republican party, his campaign officials say that polls have not shown Sauerbrey gaining any ground on the Democratic governor. So their campaign continues.
And to those who say it’s a long-shot, Ecker simply points to 1990, when he entered his first campaign for public office and beat a supposedly unbeatable Democratic incumbent, Elizabeth Bobo, for the county executive’s job.
“To many people his campaign efforts seem to be a waste of time, but if history repeats itself he might become a winner,” said Geyer Wise, Ecker’s campaign manager.
Del. Robert Flanagan, R-Howard, said a little competition is healthy and Ecker’s entering the race is not a bad thing.
“It’s an indication of competition. The Republican nomination is worth competing for,” Flanagan said.
Ecker boasts in his campaign literature that he covered a $23 million revenue shortfall as county executive by cutting the budget. He claims credit for a 26 percent increase in jobs in the county from 1991-96 by being “business-friendly,” while still building schools to keep pace with the growth.
“I think he’s given us everything we asked for,” in terms of school funding and construction, said Howard County Superintendent Michael E. Hickey, who was shocked at Ecker’s October announcement that would run for governor.
C. Vernon Gray, a Democratic member of the Howard County Council for 16 years, described Ecker as an easy-going guy, with folksy appeal. He said they have always been able to work together, even though they do not always agree on issues.
“He has a laid-back style. If the people can get past that they may hear something good,” Gray said.
“Besides, he’s really a Democrat anyway. If you look at the issues, he’s a people-person,” said Gray, who said he supports Glendening. “People should look at his position on human services and education.”
Around town, Ecker’s a real star. A portrait of him wearing a bonnet during a high school play hangs in the lobby of the Crab Shanty. His days are filled with smiles, handshakes and plenty of locals wishing him luck.
But he has much work to do statewide, where many voters don’t have a clue as to who he is.
An April poll by Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research Inc. of Columbia gave Sauerbrey 64 percent to Ecker’s 14 percent in the GOP primary. A poll in January gave Sauerbrey 58 percent and Ecker 12 percent.
But another poll shows Glendening widening his lead, even though many Marylanders told pollsters they do not trust him.
Ecker said if Sauerbrey, who has been campaigning for 3-1/2 years, cannot beat Glendening, Republicans need an alternative.
“Democracy is a good thing. We’re not afraid of a primary election,” said Jim Dornan, Sauerbrey’s press secretary.
Dornan said sometimes it takes a while to get elected, but those working on Sauerbrey’s 1998 campaign are “extremely comfortable.”
“We’re raising money at a quicker rate than we did in 1994, and the incumbent is not as popular as he was in 1994,” said Dornan, who said he admired Ecker and his work in Howard County.
“We hope that after the primary we can get his support,” Dornan said.
While he has slick campaign literature, Ecker’s $200,000 campaign pales next to the $5 million Sauerbrey expects to raise and spend for the campaign.
Still, Ecker, 68, says he can do for the state what he did for 230,000 Howard County residents, creating jobs and a budget surplus by making the state more business-friendly.
He does not reject the outsider tag and assails the Annapolis political establishment for “long-standing” ethics problems that culminated this year in the expulsion of Baltimore Sen. Larry Young.
“We cannot afford to wait any longer to resolve this deplorable state of affairs in Annapolis,” said Ecker. He has proposed a two-term limit for state legislators so they do not become “career” politicians who get caught up in conflicts of interest.
Critics say Ecker is a dreamer with no real concept of reality. But he answers firmly, “the race isn’t over until it’s over.”
“People are saying that they didn’t have a choice in the 1994 election,” Ecker said. After speaking to many Republicans, he concluded that they “do not want the same choices they had for governor.”
Joe Solomon agreed. The University of Maryland senior is a registered independent who volunteers on the Ecker campaign between classes.
“I’m like a lot of Marylanders,” he said. “I hear a lot of people say that they don’t like Parris Glendening and they really don’t like Ellen Sauerbrey.”
Since announcing, Ecker has been busy making appearances at fairs, picnics, parades, luncheons and dinners across the state.
In his stump speech, the Uniontown native usually says that he has been married to Peggy for 45 years and they have two sons and nine grandchildren.
He might mention that he is a Navy veteran with an honorable discharge and that he taught and coached in Carroll, Prince George’s and Howard counties before retiring as deputy Howard schools superintendent after 36 years in education.
Bill Chesnutt, who has known Ecker for 30 years, said he is not a “politician’s politician” but a real person who got involved with the system.
“I started hearing rumors that he might run, and I encouraged him,” said Mary Lyon of Baltimore County, once a registered who switched parties a few weeks ago so she could vote for Ecker in the primary. She said she admired the way he has worked in Howard County.
Ecker makes time between his campaign and his job as executive to work out, going to the gym on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. He starts out with a cardiovascular workout and then lifts weights for 30 minutes.
“I don’t know many people half his age that can keep the kind of schedule that he has,” said Chris Marasco, a fitness trainer at Colosseum Gym in Columbia. “We all can only hope to be in that good of shape at 68.”
Del. Patricia Anne Faulkner, R-Montgomery, described Ecker as honest and a “man of integrity.” She said he’s been a family friend for 30 years — Faulkner’s mother taught school with Peggy Ecker.
“I think it’s going to be an uphill battle for Ecker because Ellen is steadily picking up momentum. But you can’t count him out,” she said. “With politics you can never tell.”
Gray, the county council member, said, “Hopefully, he’ll make the race against Sauerbrey interesting.”