Once A Foregone Conclusion, Race Could End In Upset

November 02, 1990|By Samuel Goldreich | Samuel Goldreich,Staff writer

Something didn't sound right last month when outgoing County Executive O.

James Lighthizer endorsed fellow Democrat Theodore J. Sophocleus as his would-be successor.

"I wouldn't have given you a plug nickel for his chances of election three months ago," Lighthizer told the crowd gathered for Sophocleus' fund-raiser in Glen Burnie.

Even that would have been a risky bet on the two-term county councilman from Linthicum, whose name didn't register with more than 75 percent of likely voters in polls conducted 11 months ago.

But with endorsements from The Evening Sun and the Annapolis Capital, Sophocleus could be in position for an upset victory Tuesday over Republican Robert R. Neall, who won the nod from The Sun.

Neall had been considered a prohibitive favorite, based on his record of tight budget management as a former three-term member of the House of Delegates. He proved his appeal in 1986, rolling up a 10,000-vote county advantage in the 4th District congressional race over political neophyte Tom McMillen. The former basketball star prevailed by 428 votes because his Democratic label played so strongly in the district's Prince George's and Howard counties precincts.

Neall enters the final weekend of the campaign banking on his reputation for championing the interests of the community even should that mean making politically unpopular decisions.

As former House minority leader and, more recently, the state's first drug czar, he has a long record of fashioning vital compromises with political opponents.

Sophocleus, a two-term county councilman from Linthicum, surprised some observers with the size of his victory over three Democratic rivals in the September primary. He defeated his nearest opponent, former Annapolis mayor Dennis M. Callahan, 43 percent to 23 percent.

Since the primary, Sophocleus has defended the council's accomplishments over the past eight years, stressing particularly the county's firm economic footing.

Voters will have to decide whether they believe that Neall represents the principled leadership that they need in tough times or whether Sophocleus can build the consensus needed to set county priorities. But whoever wins Tuesday will probably have to manage county resources diminished by a recession and a cap on property tax revenues.

Both men oppose Question D, the ballot measure that would cap property tax revenue growth at 4.5 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower. Neither candidate wants to lose the taxing flexibility to respond to fiscal emergencies or galloping inflation.

They offer similar prescriptions for tax relief, but their specific platforms reflect radically different assumptions about the future and perceptions of the past.

Neall promises to create a spending affordability committee similar to a state body he helped establish that determines how much taxes citizens are able to pay. Voters Tuesday will be able to vote on creating such a committee, thanks to a ballot question Sophocleus put through the council.

Neall promises to peg the county budget to growth in personal income; Sophocleus says he would limit growth in individual assessments to 3 percent to 5 percent and seek spending increases between 5 percent and 8 percent.

Neall would voluntarily limit growth in property tax revenue to 5 percent; Sophocleus promises extensive relief through tax credits for seniors and lower-income homeowners.

Neall, who helped push a controversial state pension reform bill through the Assembly as minority leader in 1985, blames the local tax revolt on county officials -- including Sophocleus -- whose spending habits have outstripped taxpayers' ability to pay. He wields a long list of specific complaints about county spending, but can reduce his charge to noting that property tax revenues have jumped 134 percent under the current government, while personal income lagged behind at 96 percent.

The former delegate admits that spending cuts might be necessary as county revenues drop, thanks in part to a decline in economic development and real estate sales. He says he will use surgical skill in trimming the budget, so as not to hurt vital services.

"It's not doom and gloom, but you have to go into a recession with your eyes wide open," he said at a political forum Monday night. "If we don't make some adjustments, we will be burdening the people when they can least afford it."

For example, he would force county officials to use their own cars for public business and reimburse mileage expenses, instead of providing public vehicles.

But Neall frankly warns that more drastic measures could be necessary if the county faces a deficit.

Noting that 70 percent of the $617 million operating budget is spent directly on salaries, he says that any spending cuts probably would require layoffs of the same percentage.

Only teachers, police and fire fighters would be "held harmless," Neall says.

While expressing sympathy for homeowners battling rising property taxes, Sophocleus prefers to highlight the achievements of the past eight years.

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