Has Old Callahan Truly Toned Down?

COMMENT

January 31, 1993|By ELISE ARMACOST

Ouch! Those Callahan files are still burning.

Four fat packs of newspaper clippings, packed with enough controversy, conflict, great quotes and just plain good stories to keep you glued to each yellowing page.

"Annapolis Mayor Dennis Callahan gets 24-hour police protection from Jamaican drug dealers threatening to kill him."

"Callahan goes on nationwide TV with Ted Koppel to talk about drugs."

"Callahan calls Annapolis Alderman Theresa DeGraff 'a child.' "

"Mayoral challengers Al Hopkins and Larry Vincent call Callahan 'brash, arrogant and insensitive.' "

Imagine picking up Bobby Neall's files four or five years from now. OK, "Burglar slips by sleeping Anne Arundel executive" would be worth another read, but how many articles on budget cuts and the Homestead Property Tax Credit Program do you think you'd get through?

Dennis Callahan's old stories still sizzle, years after they happened.

If he wants to see that as a feather in his cap, let him. He has a right. There aren't many politicians who are so fascinating after the fact.

But the truth is, the enduring memory of some of his more colorful moments is a big problem for him now that he's running for mayor again. At a time when he's trying to convince people to believe in a new kinder, gentler Dennis Callahan, he wishes everyone would let the old one fade away.

And so far, no one will.

Here's a case in point: Last week, the former mayor was sitting in his living room overlooking the Annapolis harbor when a friend called to tell him a cartoon in The Capital newspaper depicted him as a bullyish boxer, saying he'd "kindly and gently punch the lights out" of anyone who doubts his new image.

"Now, where do they get that from?" he asked, bemused. "I don't understand how this keeps going and going and going."

But the reason isn't hard to see. Mr. Callahan's old image keeps going because there are two groups out there who have a vested interest in keeping it alive and well.

The first is his enemies, who don't believe he's changed and know the best way to keep him out of City Hall is to convince everyone else he's as brash and arrogant as ever. The second is the media, which loved the old Callahan and are practically salivating at the chance to have him back. He was great copy. If Mr. Callahan's really changed as much as he says he has, reporters and columnists aren't going to have half the fun they did before.

So, has he changed? Is the New Callahan for real?

It's impossible to tell at this point. He's been virtually conflict-free since his 1990 run for county executive, but then again, he hasn't been tested the way he will be between now and Election Day.

One factor that weighs in his favor is his understanding of the shortcomings that led to his humiliating 1989 loss to Mr. Hopkins. You can't change unless you see your mistakes, and Mr. Callahan sees his clearly -- the grudges, the flamboyance run amok, the personal vendettas against people that helped jeopardize his own political future.

"If someone on the council didn't vote my way, I took it personally, and at some point in time I made sure I got back at that person," he says.

"I was too politically naive to realize those people had their own political constituencies. It wasn't a very smart thing to do. In fact, it was downright dumb."

Put aside, for a moment, all the pluses Mr. Callahan carries into this race -- his articulateness, name recognition, natural leadership ability and an Independent status that will save him the expense of a primary election. Put aside some of the minuses, too: the fact that Annapolis has never elected an Independent mayor and that, as a defector from both the Democrats and Republicans, Mr. Callahan probably won't win the backing of those influential party leaders.

None of this will matter one iota if he can't convince people he's changed.

Is it possible? Sure it is. No one can change his fundamental nature, it's true, but people intelligent enough to recognize such faults as a bad temper or a quick tongue can learn to control them. And people do mature.

The tricky part is that even those with the self-discipline to beat their bad side into submission occasionally suffer a lapse. And one lapse -- one nasty quote, one flare of the old Irish temper -- will be all it takes for his enemies to say, "See, the old Callahan still lives.".

Mr. Callahan has absolutely no margin for error. He's smart enough to know this. That's why he's decided he's "simply not going to respond" to comments like Ms. DeGraff's, "Mr. Sleaze is back."

It's a good policy, the best one he could adopt. The question is, can he follow it for nine long months in a campaign that promises to be as dirty and hostile as they get? When things get ugly, will he be able to hold his tongue?

It's too early to tell. But as Alderman Carl Snowden notes, "It won't take long for us to know."

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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