A history of Howard County Council redistricting, part 5

4 minute read

In part 4 of this series proponents of Howard County Council districts failed to get a referendum on the ballot in the November 1980 general election. In this post the council district controversy provides the backdrop for Howard County politics in the early 1980s.

(Readers of this series should also check out the comments from Ken Stevens on part 1 and part 3 for some informative insights from someone who was involved in the events in question.)

1981-1982. Democratic dominance of Howard County continues, as long-time political allies county executive J. Hugh Nichols and state senator James Clark, Jr., team up to place their associates and (in Clark’s case) relatives in various positions of power. Howard countians even get a chance to vote for another James Clark, a candidate for county council. Clark is no relation to senator Clark, but is the husband of Lillian Clark, Nichols’s transportation coordinator and the campaign manager for senator Clark’s second cousin, E. Alexander Adams. (“It’s a cheap political trick to fool people in the voter’s booth, fumes an angry Central Committee candidate.”)

Columbia Democratic Club president James Kraft notes that Nichols demands absolute loyalty. Nichols agrees (“I wouldn’t tolerate disloyalty”), and explains how he runs his administration: “When you’re careful and select professionals who are team players, then you have professionals who can follow the team plan.”

Nichols’s Independent Team of county council candidates, previously unsuccessful in the 1978 council elections, tries again in 1982; opposing them in the crowded Democratic primary (13 candidates for five seats) are the Democratic Team of council incumbents Elizabeth Bobo, Ruth Keeton, and Lloyd Knowles. Bobo, previously rumored to be considering a run for county executive, is courted by Nichols for his slate; although she agree[s] with about 95 percent of the legislation Hugh Nichols sends down, she declines: “I’m not pledging 100 percent allegiance to anyone.”

Nichols protege James Clark manages to win nomination but otherwise the Independent Team goes down to defeat in September. Opponents of Nichols hail the primary results as a rejection of bossism, as Nichols consoles himself: “it’s better than four years ago when we didn’t have any.” Nichols and senator Clark themselves are unopposed in the primary.

On the other side of the aisle, after the death of former Republican commissioner and county council member Charles E. Miller a 23-year-old truck terminal manager and a 40-year-old auto shop teacher (David Maier and Phil Goodall respectively) spend their nighttime hours trying to revive a moribund Howard County Republican party organization. A recent migrant from Montgomery County, Goodall expresses surprise at how invisible the GOP is in Howard County: “It was hard to find anyone in the party to contact.”

Despite an overwhelming Democrat edge in registered voters, Howard County Republicans find reasons to hope. Central Committee chair (and college senior) Will Neumann looks to attract moderates into the party, while Goodall notes the presence of conservative Democrats in the county who would vote for a strong Republican candidate. Energized by Ronald Reagan’s carrying Howard County (by 24,272 votes to 20,702 votes for Jimmy Carter), they envision translating Reagan’s national success into success at the local level.

However Howard County Republicans have trouble finding anyone to run for county council, finally persuading conservative western county farmer Charles Feaga to stand as the lone GOP council candidate. Feaga highlights his positions opposing public sector unions and in favor of capital punishment and electing council members by districts.

No Republican candidates step forward to run against Nichols or senator Clark, but Robert Kittleman and John Vandenberge sign up to run for delegate against Hugh Burgess and Edward Kasemeyer. Moral-issue oriented Vandenberge goes on the attack against Burgess, whom he claims voted to allow pornographic movies to be shown in neighborhood theaters. Kittleman notes that he doesn’t always agree with Vandenberge, but concludes, “Republicans have a long, hard road to get elected in Howard county. We’ve got to stick together.”1

(Nichols, Clark virtually control Howard, Nichols slate finds going rough, Two who didn’t run may have lost most, Pair works nights trying to revive lifeless Howard GOP organization, Revived GOP plans on storming Howard county next election, GOP has uphill battle in Howard county)

November 1982. 60% of Howard County’s 65,801 registered voters turn out as Democrats take advantage of a greater than 2-1 registration advantage (40,218 to 17,462, with 8,121 unaffliated or other) to win every county position. Nichols is reelected as county executive unopposed, while council incumbents Bobo, Keeton, and Knowles win another term. Nichols puts one of his own on the council as James H. Clark is elected; Clark is joined by C. Vernon Gray, the first black council member, who defeats Charles Feaga for the fifth at-large seat.

Unsuccessful at the county level, Howard County Republicans console themselves with Robert Kittleman’s upset victory over Hugh Burgess. Kittleman becomes the first member of the county GOP to go to Annapolis in 61 years. Republicans also note that Charles Feaga received heavy support outside Columbia and benefited from single-shot voting as the sole Republican candidate, raising the possibility that Feaga could have achieved victory if a council district system were in place.

(Democrats sweep; first black seated, Elections boost Republican morale)

In part 6 of this series we’ll see council district proponents regroup and try one more time to put a district proposal on the ballot.

  1. The Baltimore Sun story GOP has uphill battle in Howard county has lots of other great tidbits, including a spat between the Republican candidates for delegate in District 13B, Reagan supporter Julia Brown (founder of the Julia Brown Montessori Schools) and trust-busting Teddy Roosevelt Republican Donald Messenger, who notes that “On the issues … I’d say I’m a lot more like a Democrat.” However the story is worth checking out if for no other reason than its picture of a handsome, resolute Charles Feaga at the wheel of his tractor.