Although Anne Arundel County voters soundly rejected a property tax cap proposal, some observers believe residents had rising tax bills on their minds when they chose Robert R. Neall as county executive Tuesday.
Neall, a Republican, was leading Democrat Theodore J. Sophocleus by 3,000 votes after most of the absentee ballots had been counted yesterday.
Sophocleus, a two-term county councilman who has not formally conceded the race, seems to have borne the brunt of voters' economic worries and frustration at rising property taxes and government spending.
The campaign to reject a charter amendment limiting property taxes succeeded but may have inadvertently hurt Sophocleus, some say.
While voting against the rigid cap on tax revenue, some voters may have looked to Neall to accomplish essentially the same goal.
Neall, who promised to control taxes, trumpeted his reputation as a fiscal tightwad during his years in the state legislature. He also painted Sophocleus as a big-spending Democrat who failed to head off the property tax revolt. Both candidates opposed the cap.
"There may have been a sense that the tax cap itself was flawed, but we did need some remedy to that situation. Mr. Neall was perceived as part of that remedy," said David Almy, Neall's campaign manager.
"People finally realized that the tax cap was extremely radical and would hurt them, not the politicians, and that maybe they should use the system to vote in people who mirrored their fiscal conservatism," said outgoing County Councilwoman Carole B. Baker, a Severna Park Democrat who led the local fight against the cap.
Michael F. Gilligan, an outgoing Democratic councilman from Glen Burnie, said, "I think the tax protest helped the Republican Party enormously because Democrats have the reputation of 'tax and spend.' "
In fact, Gilligan said, Neall's fiscal reputation prompted him to put aside party loyalty and work in the Republican's campaign. Gilligan, whom Sophocleus handily trounced in the Democratic primary in September, said he harbored no ill will toward Sophocleus but simply doubted his fellow Democrat's ability to grapple with hard economic times.
"If it couldn't be me, it should be him," Gilligan said of Neall.
Gilligan worked behind the scenes for Neall by arranging meetings between the Davidsonville Republican and Glen Burnie Democrats and acting as a go-between for would-be Neall supporters.
Neall needed to capture a number of crossover votes in a county where Democratic registered voters outnumber Republicans by 3-2.
In fact, Neall surprised the opposition by running fairly close to Sophocleus in the working-class areas of Glen Burnie and Pasadena, traditional Democratic strongholds.
Sophocleus supporters are so baffled by Neall's strong showing in northern Anne Arundel that they are considering asking for a recount and are wondering if the county's new paper-ballot voting system contained flaws.
Almy said Gilligan's support, particularly the transfer of his campaign office to Neall, was "significant but not substantial."
Neall also targeted northern Anne Arundel cable television viewers with an ad blasting Sophocleus' fiscal record. The spot said the councilman voted for a lavish new office building and a pension increase for himself while schools needed repairs.
Democrats said Sophocleus' failure to beat Neall by larger margins in his own backyard contributed to his defeat, since Neall did well in his southern Anne Arundel base and Republican areas.