The office is immaculate as always. Huge stacks of files are neatly arranged on the conference table. The only sign that anything might be amiss are the balloons. Once filled with helium, they have now fallen casually to the floor. Their "Best Wishes" message is still clearly visible.
The fallen balloons seem somehow appropriate. For this is County Executive M. Elizabeth Bobo's office. And it is Friday, Nov. 30, her last day. She is closing, at least for now, a 14-year career in politics that began when she was appointed to the Board of Appeals in 1976.
Technically, she will remain executive until Charles I. Ecker is sworn in Monday night at Howard High School. But this is really her last day.
In at least one respect, it is very much like her first as executive.
The sound coming through the double doors of her office is the roar of her laughter. It is a trademark of sorts -- a laugh that seems far too big for the 5-foot 4-inch woman who utters it.
"Five-foot-three-and three-quarters," she corrects, laughing.
Today, like always, she is late. Because, like always, people are lining up at her door to have a word with her. Today, the words are farewell. She gives each person a moment and shares a hearty laugh. Sometimes it's gallows humor, coming when least expected. It's her way of letting people know she's going to be all right.
When she's in a mood, no one can be more charming. Today, she is in such a mood.
"I really feel good today," she says.
The previous 24 hours she did not. "The hardest days, from Wednesday night to Thursday night, came just this week," she says. "Possibly because it's coming to the end, now. My whole career has been politics."
She says she will wait until after the first of the year to decide what to do.
"I don't know if I will stay in the area of public policy, which I love, or whether I will work in the private sector. I don't know whether I will be highly visible or have a low profile -- those are the kinds of things I'm weighing. Of course, that assumes I have choices -- it is by no means certain."
The latter is said not with the melancholy air of a person seeking sympathy, but with the self-deprecating humor of a person who is not overawed with herself.
"I'm not a wealthy person by any means," she says. "Fortunately the last of my children is preparing for his last semester in college. What I want to do (now) is something I enjoy and am good at. I want it to tie in with my values.
"I'm not interested just in making money -- that does not appeal to me.
Of course (laughter again), I may not have that option. What I value most is making the community a better place. And I can help do that in private as well as in public."
Her political agenda grew each of her years in office, especially the last four as county executive, Bobo says. Asked to rate on a scale of one to 10 how much of that agenda she accomplished, she says, "A good nine. We were more successful in getting programs through than I ever thought we would be."
What's left unfinished, she says, is environmental "protection, conservation and preservation." She worries about the implementation of the General Plan in the western portion of the county. "Maybe it'll be followed through," she says. "We'll see."
Bobo says that while she loved the "visibility, the attention, the press coverage" that came with her job, "not a day went by that I didn't say to myself, 'I don't want to find myself identical with the office.' "So there are good sides to this -- that doesn't mean I'm not disappointed. I'm sad, but it's also food for the soul. It's very reassuring to know that I'm going to get through this. I have a lot of wonderful friends. I am very blessed.
"And my kids: They have been terrific from election night right on through -- so comforting, so helpful, so insightful. It has given me the opportunity to see them in a new light. They were very special before, but now . . . they are more special than I ever knew."
One of the things Bobo was criticized for in her 450-vote loss to Ecker was having $28,000 left in her campaign coffers.
"We didn't intentionally decide to have money left over," she says. "But I am confident more money wouldn't have made any difference."
The one and perhaps only thing she could have done, she says, was to have responded to what she considers negative campaigning.
"It was negative from the start and eventually ended with me being accused of running a dishonest government. Conventional wisdom is to combat negativity with negativity. I just assumed the negativity would be seen for what it was."
"As difficult as the loss of this election has been, I don't have one ounce of regret or remorse," she says. "I wouldn't trade anything for my whole political career -- especially the last four years. I loved every minute of it. It has been immensely satisfying and rewarding. It has enriched me as a person and I'm very grateful for that . . . and for the very, very good public servants I have worked with."