February 04, 1993

He's ba-a-a-ck.

Former Annapolis Mayor Dennis Callahan is running for his old job again, sporting a new political party (his third!) and a new image that's even kinder and gentler than the mellow mode he adopted for his unsuccessful 1990 bid for Anne Arundel County executive. The independent candidate says he's changed, learned a lesson from his embarrassing 1989 defeat at the hands of that unlikely conqueror, Al Hopkins.

Can we believe him? It's too early to tell. Leopards don't change their spots that easily but, to his credit, Mr. Callahan sees clearly where he went wrong -- the petty personal quarrels, the refusal to listen to others. Having seen what his style cost him, he is no doubt serious about changing it.

Still, as he announces his candidacy, we have to assume that, even if he's matured, the new Dennis Callahan, deep down, is the same as the old: an activist with vision, but also with a penchant for stirring controversy and making people mad.

Whether or not you like him, Mr. Callahan's candidacy is good for Annapolis. Annapolitans have been through four years of him and nearly four years of Mr. Hopkins, his antithesis.

Assuming Mr. Hopkins runs, a rematch of their 1989 race -- not to mention the campaign of whoever wins the Republican nomination -- will give city residents a clear referendum on the kind of government they want. Theirs is a choice between an activist or a custodial mayor, between a mayor who controls and one who delegates, between a mayor who's part of the new Annapolis and one with ties to the old. There will be other players in the race, but the basic dilemma facing Annapolis residents is the one embodied by these two men.

Both have been good mayors, in their different ways. Mayor Hopkins is no visionary, but he has surrounded himself with capable people who have helped him maintain the status quo. Mr. Callahan could be abrasive, but he accomplished much, managing the city's finances well, cleaning up the city housing authority, fighting drugs and enfranchising blacks.

This year, Annapolitans can't complain about not having a choice. Their challenge is to decide what kind of leader they need in the 1990s and beyond.

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