John R. Leopold almost moved to Manhattan's Lower East Side -- to paint.
He learned Mandarin Chinese from a former Miss China, a contestant in the Miss Universe pageant.
And his favorite sportsman is retired Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Mike Schmidt. A poster of Schmidt downing a carton of milk used to hang on the basement wall of Leopold's Pasadena town house.
Leopold, a two-term delegate to the Maryland General Assembly, is perhaps best known to District 31 voters as the tall, lanky figure standing on the side of the county's highways for the last eight years, waving a "Leopold & You" sign at passing motorists.
He has knocked on their front doors and sent them condolences when relatives have died. And he has dominated news headlines, garnering more ink than any of the county's other 18 delegates and state senators.
However, as a candidate for the District 31 Senate seat, Leopold remains something of a mystery.
Since Leopold won a seat to the Hawaii House of Representatives 20 years ago, his opponents have described him as a self-serving opportunist; his advocates have portrayed him as a political maverick who listens to his constituents and is unafraid of bucking the system.
And everyone says he's ambitious.
"Delegate Leopold is smart, competent," said John Kabler, regional director of the Clean Water Action Project, a national environmental lobby that has endorsed Leopold's opponent, state Sen. Philip C. Jimeno. "But he seems to misuse, to misdirect his abilities in the legislature. He uses his competence and his abilities to grab the spotlight and to take credit for others' work."
"I think he's a smart politician," agreed Delegate John Gary, R-Millersville. "But there is a difference between being a smart politician and being an effective legislator. He could have been one of the most effective legislators down (in the General Assembly) if he had been more of a team player."
"He made members of the majority party embarrassed because he always did his homework," said Hawaiian state Sen. Mary George, a Republican colleague during Leopold's four years in the Hawaiian Senate. "He worked 24 hours a day. That's always embarrassing to those who just try to slide by."
"He spends 99 percent of his time thinking and talking about politics and public policy," said Delegate Robert Kittleman, R-Howard County. "He probably even dreams about those things. They consume his life."
Sitting in a corner booth at the Severna Park Hardee's last week, Leopold retraced the events in his life that brought him to the Senate race.
He had declined to be interviewed at his new Elizabeth Landing town house. And he prefers the booth at Hardee's to the small office the state provides him in Annapolis.
It is the same booth, Leopold said, where he told former U.S Representative Marjorie Holt and former Delegate Robert Neall last spring that he would not run against Neall for the GOP's county executive nomination. He abandoned his three-year-old bid for county executive because opinion polls indicated he could not defeat Neall, but would fare much better against Jimeno in the Senate race.
Leopold, 47, said he was born into a decidedly non-political Philadelphia family. His father, Irving Henry Leopold, is an internationally renowned ophthalmologist. His mother, Eunice Robinson Leopold, is a Baltimore native. They now live in Newport Beach, Calif.
Even Leopold, who has touted himself as a full-time legislator in both Hawaii and Maryland, toyed with careers in creative writing, painting and journalism before launching into politics.
Graduating with the 200th class of Philadelphia's Germantown Academy, Leopold won the private high school's literary prize for a poem comparing the works of Henry David Thoreau and T.S. Eliot, his favorite poet.
Later, at New York's Hamilton College, Leopold split his time between sports -- he played varsity soccer and baseball -- and the arts. An English major, he served on the board of the school literary magazine and developed an interest in abstract painting.
After his college graduation in 1964, he headed to the New Jersey Shore to work a summer job at the Long Beach Daily Reporter.
"I've always been fascinated by the world of journalism," Leopold said.
"Recently, I've been thinking a lot about television as a way to combine my interest in public affairs and the arts."
Before finally accepting a job as a research assistant and speech writer for former U.S. Sen. Hugh Scott, R-Pa., a young Leopold considered moving to a loft in Manhattan's Lower East Side and living an artist's life.
Leopold said he had sold several paintings to galleries in Philadelphia and Iowa, "which I would love to have back right now."
"There's a painting I sold for a three-piece suit in a store in Iowa City," he said.
Last week, while campaigning in Laurel Acres, Leopold said he met a constituent -- for the first time among the thousands of doors he has knocked on -- who knew his favorite artist, Nicholas de Stael, a Hungarian abstract painter.