Did the Howard County GOP help dig its own grave?

6 minute read

I’m continuing Dividing Howard week on my blog, as I discuss some topics related to my new book on the history of council council redistricting in Howard County, Maryland, and the broader events of Howard County politics from 1960 on. Today’s post poses the question: Is the current disadvantaged state of the Howard County Republican party, especially with respect to council redistricting, partly or even mostly of its own making?

Democrats have held a voter registration advantage over Republicans for the past fifty years in Howard County, and that advantage has reliably translated into an electoral advantage. Since Howard County’s current charter form of government came into effect in the late 1960s and the Howard County Council was established, Democrats have had a majority on the council for all but four years of that time.1

That in turn has translated into Democrats having ultimate control over drawing the district lines for county council elections. The later chapters of Dividing Howard are filled with complaints from local Republicans about Democratic gerrymandering of council districts and exhortations to draw council district lines in a way that is allegedly more fair.

As it happens I too am concerned about the possibility of gerrymandering, both with county council districts and more generally. (I’ll have more to say about this soon.) However at the same time I don’t see local Republicans simply as innocent victims of a dastardly Democratic plot. To a large degree Howard County Republicans are complicit in the creation of the current council system under which they’re struggling to achieve electoral success.

First, as I discussed in yesterday’s post, if the planned community of Columbia had not been established then Howard County would likely have remained under the county commissioner form of government; it was local Republican leaders who originally formed the “How-Char-Go Committee” to promote switching Howard County to a charter form of government, and local Democratic leaders who pushed back, telling voters to reject a charter referendum in the 1964 general election (which the voters proceeded to do). Local Democrats eventually joined the charter movement, but there’s no question it started out as a Republican project.

In retrospect Howard County Republicans clearly didn’t realize that the establishment of Columbia would lead to a major influx of liberal Democrat voters, and any “buyer’s remorse” they might have felt is completely understandable. (See for example local Republican leader Charles Miller’s comments in 1977 on the tenth anniversary of Columbia, in which he expresses regret at having listened to Jim Rouse’s sale pitch.) However rather than accepting the new situation and trying to do their best to deal with it electorally, Republicans then proceeded to make it arguably worse from their point of view.

More specifically, when the Howard County Council was originally established in 1969 there were no council districts. All Howard County Council members were elected at large. However as discussed in chapter 2 of Dividing Howard, in the 1974 general election the growing population of Columbia led to the election of four Columbia Democrats to the county council, as well as the election of a county executive (Edward Cochran, father of Courtney Watson) who was sympathetic to the concerns of Columbia voters.

As outlined in chapters 3 through 6 of Dividing Howard, the result was a growing backlash in the rest of the county against Columbia’s political power, a backlash that led to a push by local Republicans and conservative Democrats to elect council members by district, in order to minimize as much as possible the influence of Columbia voters. In fact, the original district proposal would have expanded the council from five members to seven, and would have required that the five council incumbents, including the four council members from Columbia, compete in only two council districts of the seven proposed—this at a time when Columbia voters were approaching half of the Howard County electorate. No wonder 80% of Columbia voters rejected this plan in 1976.

Undeterred, local Republicans continued to join conservative Democrats in pushing for a council district scheme: Local Republican leader Charles Feaga led a petition drive to revive the seven-district scheme in 1980 after a Democrat-dominated commission had rejected the scheme. After his unsuccessful council bid in 1982 (in which he came in sixth as Democrats won all five at-large council positions) Feaga continued to push for establishment of council districts, along with other Republicans. Once council districts were approved by Howard County voters in 1984 Feaga was able to take advantage of the district system to finally become the first (and at that time, only) Republican council member in 1986.

So although Republicans were not the sole force behind the creation of council districts (I think the role of conservative Democrats outside of Columbia was more important), they certainly were consistently vocal in support of the district system and happy to see it established. Once districts were actually in place Republicans found themselves on the losing end of the council redistricting game, beginning with the 1986 redistricting effort, since the council was empowered to draw district lines and the council still had a Democratic majority. That’s when the Republican complaints of Democratic gerrymandering began.

Subsequently Howard County Republicans arguably botched their best chance of countering such gerrymandering. After the 1990 election of Republican Charles Ecker as county executive, Republicans were able to throw some sand in the gears of the redistricting process, using Ecker’s veto and a subsequent lawsuit, but still lacked the council majority necessary to control the process. However in 1994 Ecker won re-election and Republicans won a three-seat majority on the county council, as Feaga was joined by Darrell Drown and Dennis Schrader. If the Republicans had been able to repeat that success in 1998 then they would have been in a position to control council redistricting after the 2000 census.

However in 1998 Ecker had to step down due to term limits and Darrel Drown declined to run again for personal reasons. Charles Feaga and Dennis Schrader chose to give up their council seats and run against each other for the county executive position. This meant that there were open seats in all three council districts previously held by Republicans. Allan Kittleman succeeded Feaga in the safe Republican seat in western Howard, and Chris Merdon was able to hold Drown’s Ellicott City seat for the GOP. However in the absence of Dennis Schrader Republicans lost the District 3 seat in southeastern Howard to Democrat Guy Guzzone, and Schrader himself lost to James Robey in the county executive race.

The result was that a Democratic-majority county council had control of the council redistricting process after the 2000 census, and (unlike 1990) they had a Democratic county executive to back them up. That same situation holds true after the 2010 general election, except that Republicans have further lost ground on the county council, now retaining only the western Howard seat originally won by Charles Feaga back in 1986.

However as I said above, even if Howard County Republicans have committed a number of own goals in getting to their current state, I still think they have have a good general point about the undesirability of the current district system in terms of providing opportunities for gerrymandering. I’ll have more to say about that topic beginning with my next post.

In the meantime I encourage you to check out Dividing Howard if you haven’t already; it’s only $2.99 from Amazon or Barnes and Noble, and all royalties go to the local charity Voices for Children, which recruits and trains volunteer advocates to represent the best interests of abused and neglected children in Howard County courts.


  1. The footnote to my post “Howard County likely voters in the 2010 general election” has links to party voter registration and electoral composition data for Howard County elections since 1988. For more on the Howard County charter push, including more quotes and complete links to primary sources, see chapter 1 of Dividing Howard.