Lincoln Town cars were not very popular political symbols in Dundalk during last year's election, when the one used by Dennis F. Rasmussen helped him lose the Baltimore County executive's job. But that's not why Thomas Toporovich keeps his behind the peeling, painted door of his old garage.
Tommy, as the 61-year-old, newly retired secretary for the County Council was called during his 22 years of public employment, figures this Lincoln will be the last car he buys, so he's taking good care of his 1988 "stupid car," as he affectionately calls it.
His last one, a 1971 baby blue Lincoln, he called "a poor man's car," because it lasted him 15 years and it cost only $4,500 used.
Toporovich says that as long as their owners buy them with their own money, Lincolns are really very popular in Dundalk -- the base of discontent last year for Rasmussen, his Lincoln and other trappings of his office.
"If you buy a Lincoln, God bless you," Toporovich said. "If you ask the public to buy you a Lincoln, that's different.
"If you lower the trunk lid to within 2 inches of being closed, it closes automatically," he said, explaining that the lights go on and off by themselves, as do the air conditioning and heat, and who knows what else. That's why he calls it a "stupid car." It thinks people are too stupid to close their own trunk or operate the lights.
It's that kind of reasoning, delivered in a thick New York accent, by a guy wearing a wide-lapeled, green and white houndstooth polyester sport coat over a bold green and white block polyester shirt, accented by trademark white belt and white shoes, that always made Tommy Toporovich stand out among the blue-suited professional bureaucrats who increasingly run government. He doesn't change cars often, and he's no slave to fashion, he said.
Tommy also was no ordinary public servant. Perhaps the last of his political generation still in Towson, Toporovich didn't study politics and government in a book. He lived it.
A well-traveled construction foreman who grew up the youngest of five brothers in New York, Toporovich worked one job too long at Sparrows Point, sank roots in the Dundalk community, refused his next transfer and quit the business to stay. He became active in community affairs and was asked to run for the County Council in 1966 on a ticket headed by the late Fred Dewberry and backed by Christian H. Kahl, the county's second executive.
After being defeated, Toporovich tried the insurance business in Towson, but within two years he was looking for something else.
Dale Anderson, whose ticket defeated Dewberry's in 1966, gave Toporovich a job on his personal staff of three. Toporovich worked partially as liaison to the council and eventually eased over to become administrative assistant in 1970 and finally council secretary in 1974.
Anderson, the blunt, outspoken, conservative organization Democrat who was elected to two terms as county executive, was forced from office after his conviction on political corruption charges in 1974. Despite that, he's still Toporovich's favorite of the six county executives with whom he has served. After Anderson, Toporovich worked under county executives Dewberry, Ted Venetoulis, Donald P. Hutchinson, Rasmussen and Roger B. Hayden, the current officeholder.
Anderson, in Toporovich's view, was a real leader, the kind of elected official never afraid to take a stand or express his very strong opinions, regardless of popularity or polls.
"He was the most honest and direct in dealing with the public," Toporovich said, explaining that he never saw evidence of corruption or of the kickbacks that architects and engineers testified they were paying for the privilege of getting contracts on building jobs for the county.
Anderson was the kind of leader, Toporovich said, who's just not around any more.
"People are now trying to be followers rather than leaders. They stay at the back of the crowd until they get the sentiment, and then run around and get in front," said Toporovich, explaining his view of 1990s-style politics. "Nobody wants to stick his neck out."
Tommy himself always was willing, though not eager, to stand up and stand out, if need be. He recalled a couple of occasions in the days before open-meetings laws when he offered to physically defend closed-door council meetings from insistent news reporters.
"Write what you want," he told them, he said, "but you'll have to go over me to get through that door." They declined the physical challenge, he said.
At roughly 5-foot-7, a bit stout and, with thinning hair combed sideways over a bald spot, he's not intimidating physically. But the word in his New York neighborhood some 50 years ago, he said, was don't mess with the "Topo brothers."