A history of Howard County Council redistricting, part 10

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In the previous part 9 of this series we reviewed the Howard County Council races of 1986 up to the time of the party primaries. In this part we continue the story with the 1986 primary and general elections:1

September-October 1986. Right before the primary election C. Vernon Gray again faces questions about his eligibility to run, as an anonymous letter writer (whom Gray intimates is connected with his opponent, Michael P. Hickey) claims to election officials that Gray’s position as a professor at Morgan State University makes him a state government employee and therefore barred as a candidate under the Howard County charter. Once again the Board of Elections rules in Gray’s favor.

In the primary itself Elizabeth Bobo defeats James Clark 2-1 to become the Democratic nominee for county executive. Incumbent council members C. Vernon Gray and Ruth Keeton also easily win nomination in Council Districts 3 and 4 respectively, Gray defeating Michael P. Hickey 2-1 and Keeton winning almost half the vote in a 3-way contest and defeating fellow incumbent Lloyd Knowles. In District 1 Shane Pendergrass and James Holway win the Democratic and Republican nominations respectively, in District 2 Angela Beltram wins the Democratic nomination with half the vote in a 4-way contest, and in District 5 Democrat Alice Bender wins the right to face off against Republican Charles Feaga.2

As the general election approaches the candidates in each district divide along somewhat different sets of issues: In Council District 1 James Holway blames the incumbents for deviating from the plans drawn up when he was a council member. In District 5 Charles Feaga and Alice Bender clash over farm zoning (We can school her on that a little bit, Feaga says), public transportation, and schools. District 2 candidates Angela Beltram and Darrel Drown agree on growth and education as the main issues but differ on who is a better match for the district, as Beltram touts her cross-party appeal (Half my workers are Republicans).

The battle over council district lines in Columbia resonates in Council District 3, where Federal worker Harry Dunbar, who unsuccessfully proposed his own districting plan, runs as an independent and joins Republican candidate Kay Koontz in criticizing Gray for endorsing a plan that splits Owen Brown between districts. (Gray counters, If I had really wanted to gerrymander it I would have put [Michael P.] Hickey in another district, and I probably would have had no primary opponent.) In heavily-Democratic District 4 Republican William McDill decries party-line voting and urges voters to look past party to the candidate (To be quite candid, I consider myself the most qualified person running for County Council); Keeton replies, My primary response to Bill has been to enjoy him.

As October ends, C. Vernon Gray’s eligibility to run is once again questioned, with outgoing county executive J. Hugh Nichols joining with others in claiming that the intent of the county charter had been to include university professors among the categories of government employees prohibited from running for county office. (Gray responds, … this is all part and parcel of some of the dirty tricks that can be expected when you run for office.) Unfortunately Nichols, who was the recording secretary for the charter committee, can’t find his notes and other material from the drafting of the charter (some of them possibly being packed away when Nichols resigned and moved to New Orleans), and in the end the Board of Elections reaffirms Gray’s eligibility.3

(Gray’s eligibility questioned, September 4, 1986, p. 20; State profs pass county council test, September 11, p. 23; Bobo wins 2-1 victory over Clark, September 11, p. 18; Gray and Keeton score big victories, September 11, p. 18; Three vie for council, September 25, 1986, p. 20; Bender, Feaga are far apart on issues, September 25, 1986, p. 21; Council hopefuls beg to differ, October 2, 1986, p. 24; Split village a District 3 issue, October 16, p. 20; Keeton stirred by McDill’s fun, October 16, 1986, p. 22; Gray’s status doubted, October 16, 1986, p. 20; Election board lawyer clears Gray for council bid… again, October 23, 1986, p. 24)

November-December 1986. Voters go to the polls for the general election, watched by a group of South American professional and community leaders visiting the U.S. to learn about American elections. Will there be any fraud tonight?, one asks, and professes himself a little disappointed after learning about the various procedural checks that make it unlikely.

Elizabeth Bobo makes history as the first female county executive in Maryland, winning with 63% of the vote and carrying 56 out of 62 precincts. But perhaps the bigger story is the GOP’s success in coming back from being shut out in 1982, as Charles Feaga secures a council seat in District 5 with a 2-1 majority (winning every precinct in the district) and Robert Flanagan joins Robert Kittleman in the Maryland House of Delegates.

However Democrats pick up the other four council seats, as Ruth Keeton defeats William McDill with a 3-1 margin, C. Vernon Gray takes two thirds of the vote in a 3-way vote, Shane Pendergrass takes 55% of the vote in another 3-way contest, and Angela Beltram gets by Darrel Drown 54%-46% in what she calls a damn tough race.3

Echoing Robert Kittleman two years before, Republican Central Committee member Gail Bates claims that Howard County is on the verge of a two-party system. However although the new district scheme has allowed Republicans to pick up one council seat and have a realistic chance of a second, the overall political dynamics of the county remain mostly unchanged. As political analyst Len Lazerick notes, … the Republican nemesis county-wide has been, and looks like it will continue to be, Columbia. The old, ugly Howard vs. Columbia split, which many on both sides hope has been buried, continues to exist politically.

As the end of the year approaches Lloyd Knowles reflects on the introduction of council districting, which led to opportunities for candidates like Charles Feaga and Angela Beltram who finished just out of the running in 1982, as well as for candidates without previous county-wide experience like Shane Pendergrass (Districting put someone such as Shane on the council, who might not otherwise have had the exposure), but at the same time cost him his council seat (I really believe I would have led the ticket if we would have had at-large elections again). He concludes, We could have done a better job, obviously, in the councilmanic districting thing. None of us took that as seriously as we should have.

(Visitors scrutinize election, November 6, 1986, p. 23; Bobo wins again, November 6, 1986, p. 18; Feaga finally wins, joins 4 Democrats on council, November 6, 1986, p. 19; GOP follows Kittleman’s lead, November 6, 1986, p. 20; Tallies for executive, council, courts, November 6, 1986, p. 19; GOP gains, November 20, 1986, p. 16; GOP glass two-thirds empty, November 13, 1986, p. 21; Clark and Knowles step down, December 4, 1986, p. 21)

In part 11 of this series we’ll skip forward to the 1990 elections and see how they set the stage for the second exercise in drawing Howard County Council district lines.


  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. The official 1986 primary election results for the county executive and county council races were as follows (incumbents are marked with an asterisk):

  • County executive (D): Elizabeth Bobo, 14,051 (68%); James Clark, 6,476 (32%).

  • District 1 (D): Shane Pendergrass, 1,655 (48%); Mitchell Egber, 1,008 (29%); Charles Wehland, 819 (23%).

  • District 1 (R): James Holway, 572 (64%); Marilyn McNeill, 322 (36%).

  • District 2 (D): Angela Beltram, 2,402 (49%); Grace Kubofcik, 1,242 (25%); John Cugle, 887 (18%); Robert Belsinger, 385 (8%).

  • District 3 (D): C. Vernon Gray (*), 2,613 (68%); Michael P. Hickey, 1,216 (32%).

  • District 4 (D): Ruth Keeton (), 1,951 (48%); Lloyd Knowles (), 1,411 (35%), Donald Carroll, 688 (17%).

  • District 5 (D): Alice Bender, 1,188 (42%); John Boender, 930 (33%); Larry Yeager, 696 (25%).

Gilbert South was unopposed in the Republican primary for county executive, as were the Republican candidates in Council Districts 2, 3, 4, and 5.

(Results are from the Columbia Flier story Official county-wide primary tallies, September 25, 1986, p. 24.)↩

  1. The board of elections relied in part on a precedent set in Prince George’s County in 1977, where a similar charter provision was interpreted as not preventing Parris Glendening from serving on the county council at the same time he was an instructor at the University of Maryland. (Glendening of course went on to become county executive of Prince George’s County and then the governor of Maryland.) This interpretation presumably also applies to current council member Calvin Ball, like Gray a professor at Morgan State University.

Note also a possible connection between this dispute between J. Hugh Nichols and C. Vernon Gray and Nichols’s earlier resignation as county executive: Nichols had wanted to start his new job in July but not resign until September, taking accrued annual leave in the meantime. Gray had objected to Nichols doing this, and had secured a ruling from the county’s law office that elected officials like Nichols were not entitled to accrue leave.↩

  1. The official 1986 general election results for the county executive and county council races were as follows (incumbents are marked with an asterisk):
  • County executive: Elizabeth Bobo (D), 26,664 (63%); Gilbert South (R), 15,572 (37%).

  • District 1: Shane Pendergrass (D), 4,354 (55%); James Holway (R), 2,901 (37%); Lewis Andrews (Ind), 659 (8%).

  • District 2: Angela Beltram (D), 5,233 (54%); Darrel Drown (R), 4,411 (46%).

  • District 3: C. Vernon Gray (D) (*), 4,392 (66%); Kay Koontz (R), 1,697 (25%); Harry Dunbar (Ind), 607 (9%).

  • District 4: Ruth Keeton (D) (*), 5,673 (74%); William McDill (R), 2,029 (26%).

  • District 5: Charles Feaga (R), 5,548 (67%); Alice Bender (D), 2,709 (33%).

(Results are from the Columbia Flier story Final, official results in county races, December 11, 1986, p. 24.)↩