Rookie Executives All Facing Tough Pitches

April 07, 1991|By ELISE ARMACOST

No one can say the honeymoon is over for metropolitan Baltimore's four new county executives. There wasn't one.

The four executives -- two of them political newcomers who scored Election Night upsets -- may have popped a champagne cork or two when the last votes were counted in November. But the party soon ended.

The first 100 days in public office have brought headaches and hard times.

The economic upturn everyone hoped would follow the troops home from the Persian Gulf has yet to occur. Income from taxes and other revenue has dwindled, leaving county governments in a financial crisis. In Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, the anti-tax sentiment that burned so hotly during the election still simmers. Layoffs and cuts in service are virtually inevitable in deficit-ridden Howard County and a threat in the other three counties.

How have the freshman executives fared in the face of such troubles?

The answer varies from county to county according to two key factors: economic severity and political experience.

Anne Arundel is in relatively sound financial shape, and Republican County Executive Robert R. Neall -- a former state legislator and state drug czar who narrowly lost a 1986 race for U.S. Congress -- knows his way around the political arena. So far he has virtually escaped criticism and had his way.

At the other end of the spectrum, Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker has no political experience and faces a $31 million deficit, the worse economic situation in the Baltimore metropolitan area. Mr. Ecker, whose affable nature helped him win the election, has angered and upset so many people that some Howard leaders are wondering if his effectiveness has been permanently diminished.

Mr. Ecker and Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden, both Republicans, were swept into office on the same tide of anti-incumbent sentiment. Mr. Ecker defeated Elizabeth Bobo on the strength of his nice-guy personality and his preaching of fiscal conservatism; Mr. Hayden upset Dennis F. Rasmussen by attacking the former executive's perceived image as an inaccessible spendthrift.

A candidate who wins because someone else loses cannot help but face extraordinary pressure once he takes office. During an election, he basically surrenders the spotlight to the person he is trying to defeat. Afterward, the public and press focus solely on him, and people often discover that they don't know their new leader at all. Everything he does becomes subject to intense scrutiny.

Mr. Hayden, a former school board president, seems to have come through this difficult period fairly well.

"He's had a very smooth transition for one who has never been in politics before," said Douglas B. Riley, Republican chairman of the Baltimore County Council.

The fact that Baltimore County still is fiscally sound hasn't hurt. Though Mr. Hayden has promised to hold the line on wasteful spending, he hasn't had to take anything away from constituents and employees, as Mr. Ecker apparently must.

The only executive who has not mandated either a no-growth budget or budget cuts, Mr. Hayden biggest challenge is balancing the needs of the school system's 4,000 new students next year with the cries of tax rebels who feel schools get enough. Mr. Hayden's first budget, due April 16, will provide the first clue as to how well he will fare.

In the meantime, Mr. Hayden clearly has succeeded at the business side of job. Critics say he has eliminated millions of dollars of wasteful spending and appointed qualified people to key positions -- though he offended the County Council when he tried to hire his new administrative officer at a higher salary than the person who held the job before.

He's helped his image by staging all-day sessions where citizens can meet with him personally. And he's dealt well with potentially antagonistic groups, such as county unions now negotiating for raises.

"He said he was going to run Baltimore County like a business, and that's exactly what he's done," Mr. Riley said.

"He is de-politicizing" the office of county executive, said Donald E. Pearce, a former school board member who worked with Mr. Hayden.

But county executives are politicians, and the best ones know the art of operating in the political realm without being controlled by it. Except for Mr. Neall, none of the three new executives seems to have mastered that art.

Mr. Neall "is a real politician; he knows how to treat people," said Anne Arundel Councilwoman Virginia P. Clagett, a Democrat.

Mr. Ecker, on the other hand, has alienated teachers by trying to cut school spending and roll back their 6 percent pay raise. He's sent morale plummeting among county employees by calling for up to 200 layoffs, threatening furloughs and eliminating all raises. He's angered civic leaders by lifting a growth moratorium and attempting to appoint a developer as county administrator. And he faces partisan disputes with Democratic majority on the County Council.

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