Tuesday's election results brought about a major coup for two-party politics in Anne Arundel County. Republican Robert R. Neall slid past Democratic rival Theodore Sophocleus in the race for the county's top job. Voters ended 8 years of Democratic control and elected not one but two Republicans to the seven-member county council.
The GOP's strength in Anne Arundel sprang from the shaky economy and voter frustration with rising tax bills. Mr. Neall, a man of many talents, tapped into this vein of discontent, running on his pledge to manage the county through tough times. Voters responded, rejecting a potentially troublesome property tax cap and embracing the candidate with extensive fiscal experience.
Mr. Neall has much in his favor. He's a respected figure in state government, gets on well with influential aldermen in Annapolis and is a favorite of retiring Democratic executive O. James Lighthizer. His financial prowess and willingness to take unpopular stands will be critical in steering Anne Arundel through the next four years.
It's too early to say how the politically reconstituted council will react to Mr. Neall's agenda. Four of the seven members are brand new, thus untested. Some are intensely parochial, others intensely community-minded.
Mr. Neall faces no such uncertainty in the State House, where he is an insider of long standing. Anne Arundel's mediocre delegation isn't what it used to be, but Mr. Neall's familiarity with legislators and his close ties to State House leaders -- especially Gov. William Donald Schaefer and House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell -- should more than compensate.
Still, he's likely to encounter tough sledding in attempting tmaintain services in a difficult economy. A maiden test of his skill will come shortly after he takes office: renegotiating contracts with teachers, police and firefighters. Here he faces the thorny job of balancing the demands of county workers against the county's shrinking treasury.
Mr. Neall inherits a county government in better shape than some of its neighbors. Anne Arundel expects overall revenue growth of about 3 percent this year, thanks to moderate growth in property and income taxes of about 7 percent.
The voters' rejection of a referendum capping growth in property taxes to 4.5 percent or the rate of inflation should help, too. The biggest plus, however, may be the realism of Mr. Neall's "tough times" campaign. Already, he has refused to discount the possibility of layoffs and is talking of meeting with Mr. Lighthizer to plan an orderly transition. He wants to review revenue estimates and put in place a plan for avoiding a shortfall in the current fiscal year. Much remains to be done, but Mr. Neall seems to be on the right track.