Success Song Of Unlikely Winner: 'I Did It My Way' Councilwoman-elect Heselton Spent $183, Spurned Endorsements

November 18, 1990|By Carol L. Bowers | Carol L. Bowers,Staff writer

On almost every Tuesday night for the past 11 years, Susan B. Heselton could be found patiently sitting through entire County Council meetings --sewing.

Now, after an unconventional campaign in which the political novice spent $183 of her own money and put up only a few homemade signs, the 48-year-old seamstress will take office Dec. 3 as the new District A councilwoman. Heselton, a Republican, will be one of five new members joining the seven-member council.

She said her upset victory shows that the American political system is alive and well, while political insiders say it shows just how strong the anti-incumbent tide was this election year.

"I was as shocked as everyone else. I was at (District B Councilwoman) Joanne Parrott's headquarters, and when the first two people came in and told me I was winning, I thought they were pulling my leg," said Heselton, shaking her head as she sat at the desk of outgoing District A Councilwoman Barbara A. Risacher one afternoon last week.

"I would like to think that this proves the system still works."

In her campaign against Democrat Charles B. Anderson, who was Harford's first county executive under the charter system of government, Heselton spent most of her time attending candidates' forums sponsored by citizens' groups. She thinks that's what helped her win.

"I just took every opportunity I could to talk," said Heselton, a former operating room nurse who lives in Joppatowne. "At Riverside, everybody showed up except Mr. Anderson. And at the senior center in Aberdeen, all but two candidates showed up. One was Mr. Anderson, and there again was that empty chair. I think I was grossly underestimated."

Of the "$183 and change" Heselton says she spent on the race, she donated $100 to the Republican Central Committee for a four-page mailed brochure on Republican candidates, $60 on two magnetic signs for cars and $18 on poster supplies.

She knew little about press releases or public speaking and refused all donations. She turned away private and organizational endorsement offers.

When she received an AFL-CIO questionnaire mailed to candidates to determine who would receive the union's public endorsement, Heselton responded to the first question "Why are you seeking our support?" this way: "I'm not."

"I was determined that if I did it, I did it my own way," said Heselton.

"No, I didn't accept donations, but I owe no one either. And I really think signs are ugly. There's no redeeming quality about them."

Her victory has baffled political insiders.

David Shrodes, chairman of the county's Democratic Central Committee, said the last time the county saw a relatively unknown candidate win was in 1972 when Republican Joseph Bernardo won the District C seat.

"He was a college professor who was pretty much unknown, and he was defeated two years later in the Republican primary by June Weeks, and Weeks was defeated by John Schafer in the general election," Shrodes recalled.

"Heselton's election, of course, was a real surprise. But I don't think you can identify her as a Republican Party person, either. I think you can identify her as a true independent from the looks of it."

Shrodes and Michael Davall, chairman of the county's Republican Central Committee, agree that a key factor in the race between Heselton and Anderson was the anti-incumbency movement in the county.

"I wish I could tell you how Susan won," said Davall. "I think there were a number of Democrats who didn't vote for Anderson in the primary and who didn't vote for him in the general election, but went over with Heselton. And there were a number of Republicans who voted the party line.

That's really the only thing that makes sense."

The vote was close. Heselton received 20,821 votes, or 44.86 percent.

Anderson received 20,505 or 44.17 percent.

So just who is Susan B. Heselton, and why would she voluntarily give up Tuesday nights for 11 years to attend council meetings with her husband, Kenneth?

"It beats television on Tuesday nights," she said with a smile. "I was on the board of directors of the Foster Branch homeowners association, and I became Foster Branch's expert on zoning in 1982, the first time the County Council had done a comprehensive rezoning. And Ken and I found it was easier to come to the council session every week because you get to know the people you're dealing with, and you could keep up with the changes in zoning."

Heselton has a home-based sewing business, Sewfully Sue, and always brought her work with her to the council meetings or did needlepoint.

She decided to run when "my husband told me to put up or shut up" after she complained repeatedly about how the county was run.

Her husband, who is employed by Power and Combustion Inc., based in Baltimore, said he believed in his wife's sincerity to win elected office, but he too was surprised she won.

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