As last year's county executive race drew to a close, Republican Joseph W. Alton started to wonder about Bobby Neall.
Robert R. Neall,the former House of Delegates minority leader and a fiscal conservative best known for his talent with numbers, was supposed to be the the clear front-runner. But with a series of petty criticisms of his Democratic opponent and a humorless, arrogant image, Neall appeared to be giving the victory away.
"In the campaign, I was so discouraged with some of the things hewould do," said Alton, Anne Arundel's first executive two decades ago. "He was somewhat combative. Some of the things he would say -- I thought he was trying to lose."
That was then. This is now.
After a narrow victory and 10 months of competent but colorless administration, the state budget crisis hit, and Neall came to life. Since theday he learned Anne Arundel would lose millions in state aid, he hasemerged as a presence to be reckoned with.
"Bobby's in his leaguewith this budget crisis," said state Sen. Michael J. Wagner, D-Ferndale. "He just happened to be lucky enough to get here during these bad times."
With an assuredness that has infuriated his critics, Neall has taken on labor and the education lobby in a crusade to finish this fiscal year in the black. He even butted heads with his fellow county executives by refusing to join them in suggesting the governor consider a tax increase.
Perhaps more than any other leader in theregion, he has been visible during this crisis, using his influence in the General Assembly to shape policies whose impact has been felt statewide.
By nature, Neall is not a flamboyant type. "Bobby's personality basically is a bean counter," said former County Councilman Michael F. Gilligan, a Democrat who ran for executive last year and served on Neall's transition team.
But even Neall's detractors notethat the budget crisis has brought out more charisma than he showed during the campaign and his first months of office. Through the summer, he enjoyed tacit approval of his conservative government, but didn't inspire much emotion. Now, he's called "the ideal county executive" on one hand and a "heartless calculating machine" on the other.
Some observe that Neall almost seems to enjoy this budget battle.
"I wouldn't say that," Neall said. "But this is what I was born to do."
As he marks his first anniversary as executive, most political observers are not surprised by Neall's prowess with a ledger. The real revelation of Neall's first year in office has been his penchant for control. He has known exactly what he's wanted and has succeeded ingetting it.
Other than offering a blanket invitation to anyone with cost-saving ideas, Neall asked no one -- not the County Council, not county workers, not constituents -- how this crisis should be handled. He told them.
"He really has been that far ahead of everyone else," Alton said.
A quick review of Neall's budget initiatives reveals how adept he has been:
* He wanted authority to cut Board ofEducation spending in mid-year and got it. Despite strong oppositionfrom the education lobby, the General Assembly approved the "Neall amendment," temporarily expanding local governments' power to cut school boards and other quasi-state agencies mid-year.
Neall insisted he didn't want power to tamper with union contracts, but his amendment also gave him that.
* He wanted to restructure the executive branch and did, despite some questions about whether the county charter allowed him to do so.
* He wanted to restore $1.8 million for instructional materials, which the school board had cut. After relentlessprodding from teachers, who wanted the money put back into salaries,a reluctant council went along with Neall.
All along, the executive's top two priorities have been preserving the quality of public services and dealing with this year's financial problems this year, rather than borrowing short-term or hoping the economy would improve.
To achieve both goals, he wanted 11,000 school and county employees to give up a portion of their pay.
How he succeeded in getting them to do so has earned him praise from supporters, who admire the shrewdness of his methods, and condemnation from workers, school supporters and others who believe he railroaded employees into a no-win situation.
First, he took a 12 percent pay cut himself and reduced his staff's pay by 5 percent.
Then he spent a day speaking to hundredsof county workers, appealing to them to "stick together as a family"by giving up about 3 percent of their pay to get through the crisis.Days later, he had figures prepared showing how many people in each labor union would be laid off if workers rejected furloughs or wage cuts. Vowing not to interfere with union contracts, he told workers tomake their own choice.
Last spring, workers accepted quietly Neall's request to forgo cost-of-living increases this year. But his popularity among the labor force has plummeted.