Bob Pepersack, candidate for county sheriff, stood in a mental hospital cafeteria and told a group of deputies: "The laughingstock of Anne Arundel County government -- that's what you are. Every one of you."
This was Pepersack's way of asking the deputy sheriffs to support him over their boss, seven-term Sheriff William R. Huggins. The deputies understood the candidate's point -- after they got one thing straight.
No, I'm not criticizing you -- I'm blasting the sheriff, said Pepersack.
You deputies are good men and women. The department has been stripped of duties in recent years, he said, because the sheriff is incompetent.
In tough-cop speak, with enough macho swagger to put Lee Marvin to shame, Pepersack barked, "I'm going to beat, cajole, kick in the ass, do anything I have to do to make this a better agency."
The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 106's meeting at the Crownsville Hospital Center had been billed as a forum for the two candidates. The curious setting was a simple matter of connections and economics. "We got it for free," one deputy said.
Huggins was, to no one's surprise, a no-show for what could have turned into a debate with Pepersack. The 75-year-old sheriff later asked for and received a private meeting with the deputies.
So who won the deputies' endorsement? The member of Lodge 106 voted Friday to endorse Huggins for re-election, prompting varied interpretations.
Huggins said, "This brings us all back together. I guess a couple of them were unhappy, but we're coming together."
Ed Smith, a deputy who is vice president of the lodge, would not release the vote tally, but he said it was not unanimous. His analysis: "You don't want to bite the hand that feeds you. He's been the sheriff 28 years and there's the likelihood he's going to be the sheriff four more years."
Pepersack said, "I understand the deputies' position, and I am sympathetic with their position." The challenger said Huggins had threatened the deputies and coerced them to support him.
In fact, an attorney for the FOP lodge wrote a letter to the sheriff warning him not to intimidate deputies into supporting him, Pepersack said and the deputies confirmed. Deputies who asked not to be identified said the sheriff did little things like leaving fund-raiser tickets on their desks with the unspoken command to sell them.
"I have never coerced them to vote for me," Huggins said. But he admitted his wife, Sgt. Jeannette Huggins -- who critics charge really runs the department -- may have been over-zealous in seeking support from his charges. And the sheriff said, "They owe me their loyalty. I'm the one who gave them their jobs."
The deputies' FOP lodge is perhaps the only police organization to back Huggins for an eighth term. Pepersack has been endorsed by the Maryland Troopers Association Inc. and its Chesapeake Lodge; the Laurel-based FOP Lodge 69, made up of state troopers; and FOP Lodge 70, made up of county police officers.
Patrick V. Drum Sr., president of the Maryland Troopers Association, wrote: "The law-enforcement community of Anne Arundel County is embarrassed that due to the unwillingness or inability of the current leadership of the sheriff's office, your Anne Arundel County police had to resort to hiring rent-a-cops to transport their prisoners to the detention center."
The Republican also has the support of Local 582 of the American Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees.
Robert G. Pepersack Sr., a 49-year-old Glen Burnie resident, is a 25-year veteran of the state police and commander of the agency's firearms licensing section. His grandfather was the first Maryland state trooper, assigned badge No. 1 in 1920.
Pepersack calls for a complete reorganization of the department, saying he is a "wave-maker" who can talk county and state elected officials into returning duties such as prisoner transportation and warrant service to the Sheriff's Department. In recent years, the duties of the office have whithered, by most accounts as a result of a turf war between the sheriff and the Lighthizer administration.
"Mr. Pepersack can make a lot of promises, but he can't fulfill them without the County Council and the delegation," Huggins said.
Pepersack also has blasted the sheriff for what he said is an unofficial policy to avoid getting involved in traffic stops and criminal arrests.
Sheriff's deputies have the power of arrest, and although Pepersack says routine law enforcement is the job of police, he says deputies are not even allowed to carry traffic citation books.
He also charges the sheriff with skirting the law by accepting fees for unsuccessful attempts to serve papers, but Huggins said lawyers who fail to get their papers served insist he accept the money, which goes to the county's general fund.