Neall, glad fight is over, turns to Arundel affairs

November 11, 1990|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Anne Arundel Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- The cardboard boxes of campaign fliers, junk mail and refrigerator magnets are stacked against the walls of his Severna Park campaign headquarters. The flags, posters and pennants have likewise been readied for storage.

With the disordered residue of a political campaign ready to be carted off to some quiet resting place, Robert R. Neall is a happy man.

Anne Arundel County's newly elected county executive simply hates campaigning, and his relief is palpable. By his own estimate, he isn't all that good at the task -- a point with which other politicians generally agree.

Nevertheless, the 42-year-old Davidsonville Republican was good enough to beat Councilman Theodore J. Sophocleus, 51, of Linthicum at the polls last Tuesday, capturing a slim 51.25 percent of the vote.

A swing of 5,000 votes the other way, Mr. Neall said, and "I would have lost by 2,000 votes and you'd See NEALL, 7D, Col. 1NEALL, from 1D

be writing my political obituary." The irony is not wasted on the man who lost a congressional race to Tom McMillen by fewer than 450 votes in 1986.

For perhaps the first time since he entered the county executive race in May, Mr. Neall can smile and laugh about his travails. This is the "old" Bob Neall, the one colleagues remember from his 12 years in the House of Delegates: the engaging, sly and thoughtful politician, not the thin-skinned, pugnacious and prickly candidate who was last seen on the campaign trail.

"There's something about my psyche that when I have to go out and ask people for help, stick out my hand and say, 'Hi, I'm Bob Neall. Vote for me,' it's an unnatural act," he said. "Sometimes campaigning brings out the worst in people."

Part of the problem may have been Mr. Neall's tendency to revel in the role of provocateur. He never disavowed his more controversial votes in the legislature and sometimes lashed out at his Democratic opponent, though aides warned him against running a negative campaign.

"He stood before groups and told the truth," said Joseph W. Alton Jr., a former Anne Arundel County executive who was convicted of extortion and sentenced to 18 months in federal prison in 1975. "I have a crazy kind of admiration for him."

Although he is reluctant to discuss it, Mr. Neall's somber style may have been caused much more by the physical pain he was enduring than previously assumed. A summer automobile accident that bruised his spinal cord has deprived him of a full night's sleep since July.

The pain in Mr. Neall's neck was constant and wearying, the executive-elect now admits. At one debate at Anne Arundel Community College, tears welled in his eyes and "I had to grip the podium to keep going."

Favored early in the race, Mr. Neall was clearly the underdog Tuesday night. Early returns, and even the Republican's own exit polling, pointed to Mr. Sophocleus as the winner.

So incredible was Mr. Neall's strong showing in north county neighborhoods, where Democrats have traditionally been dominant, that on Friday the Sophocleus campaign announced that they would ask the county's election office for a recount of 22 precincts.

"I know what he [Mr. Sophocleus] is going through," Mr. Neall said. "I went through that in 1986. He's getting calls from people who feel depressed, some who are angry and others who shake their heads in disbelief. They call you day and night with their reasons and theories."

Yet a central post-campaign question lingers: Will it be a kinder, gentler Mr. Neall that Anne Arundel County can expect when the new county executive takes office next month?

Clearly, winning over the county's work force will have to be one of the candidate's first priorities.

With the exception of one public employees union -- the professional firefighters -- county workers enthusiastically supported his opponent. Small wonder: Mr. Neall's campaign centered on a single theme, lowering government spending, and he advocated reductions in the county's payroll as the best way to meet that goal.

"When you have a race that close and nearly half the people in the county voted for somebody else, you've got to mend fences," said Robert A. Pascal, a former Anne Arundel executive who now serves as appointments secretary for Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

"He's got to prove that he can get along with people. There'll have to be a give and take."

Already, the anxiety level in the Arundel Center, the headquarters for county government in Annapolis, has risen noticeably, and that concerns the new executive.

"They will be pleasantly surprised," Mr. Neall said. "I do not consider myself an uncompassionate person. I'm not going to walk through the Arundel Center and point and say, 'You, you and you, get out.' I'm not going to do anything cataclysmic."

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