GOP foray into Democratic 31st makes for 'nasty talk'

October 23, 1990|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Anne Arundel Bureau of The Sun

One by one, Maryland's top Democrats stood at the balcony overlooking the main ballroom at Michael's Eighth Avenue to denounce their hated adversary.

Like Pentecostal preachers railing against Satan, their words were full of fire and brimstone. Even for the standards of political rhetoric in an election year, emotions at the Oct. 10 Glen Burnie fund-raiser were running very high.

A "demagogue," declared state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's.

"He's a chameleon . . . an opportunist," said Anne Arundel County Executive O. James Lighthizer.

"A guy who works with smoke and mirrors," insisted Sen. Michael jTC Wagner, D-Anne Arundel, host of the $50-a-head event and the reception hall's owner.

L Who is this man, and why do all these Democrats hate him so?

It's John R. Leopold, that's who, and even the most stinging partisan criticism doesn't impress him.

"They [Democrats] see me as a threat," said Mr. Leopold after being told of the remarks. "I'm the Republican with an ability to win in the Democrats' back yard, and we're not supposed to be able to do that."

The first member of the GOP to win a seat in the House of Delegates from the Democrat-entrenched 31st Legislative District in northern Anne Arundel County eight years ago, the tall and lanky Mr. Leopold has caused Democrats to throw fits.

Currently, the 47-year-old Pasadena resident and one-time Hawaii legislator and gubernatorial candidate is given a better-than-even chance of defeating incumbent Democratic Sen. Philip C. Jimeno at the polls Nov. 6, according to GOP and Democratic experts alike.

Though Mr. Jimeno, 43, the compactly built son of a West Virginia coal miner, has never lost a race in his 12 years in the state legislature, he is running as the underdog.

"I don't call reporters, and I don't seek publicity," said Mr. Jimeno during a recent interview. "I can be embarrassed by an introduction -- the big flowery kind. I just don't like to send out press releases. I never thought that's what my constituents wanted."

On the other hand, shyness has never been a problem for Mr. Leopold, who has single-handedly rewritten the book on how to get elected to political office in Anne Arundel County.

A tireless and earnest campaigner, the Republican came out of nowhere to capture his House seat in 1982. He was buoyed primarily by a sign, "Leopold and You," which he held up twice a day on street corners for the benefit of rush-hour traffic, and by his door-to-door forays into his district's every neighborhood.

But from 1987 until last June, Mr. Leopold was campaigning for county executive, not the state Senate. A harsh critic of Mr. Lighthizer's eight-year regime, Mr. Leopold dropped his bid for county office only after a poll made it clear that he stood little chance of defeating former Delegate Robert R. Neall in a Republican primary.

Along the way, Mr. Leopold collected more than $161,227 in donations as a candidate for "county executive or the House of Delegates," -- four times more than Mr. Jimeno, according to campaign finance reports.

As of Aug. 31, Mr. Leopold had added only about $2,000 to that total, but, in perhaps the most important yardstick, he still had more than $52,000 in cash on hand, compared with about $18,000 for the incumbent.

Mr. Leopold's sudden shift, from the county executive race to the Senate contest, is seen by Democrats as an issue for the campaign. They cite it as an example of Mr. Leopold's allegedly self-serving nature.

Before he withdrew from the race, the Republican had publicly entertained thoughts of re-registering as a Democrat in order to avoid primary duel with Mr. Neall. "He's not a team player," said Mr. Jimeno. "It's always 'Leopold for Leopold.' "

Mr. Leopold denies this, pointing out that he never formally filed as a county executive candidate. An effort allegedly inspired by Democrats to get his contributors to ask for refunds, on the grounds that the money was given for a different purpose, will cost the campaign less than $3,000, he said.

"They [Jimeno supporters] have been nasty and mean-spirited, and engaged in mudslinging," Mr. Leopold said.

Fellow Republicans say the criticism that Mr. Leopold is somehow untrustworthy or too self-promoting is unfair. "He's certainly an aggressive guy, but I haven't had any trouble working with him," said Delegate Ellen R. Sauerbrey, R-Baltimore County.

It has not been a pretty political campaign. Though neither candidate faced a primary opponent, the race has been dominated by "innuendo and nasty talk" for months, according to Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who led a whistle-stop tour of the district on behalf of Mr. Jimeno earlier this month.

Mr. Leopold's main thrust has been that Mr. Jimeno has been an unwavering Schaefer disciple, part of the "tax-and-spend crowd." The senator supported the Baltimore stadiums and the 5-cent raise in the gas tax.

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