He'll Never Be Mayor -- Or Dull, Either

COMMENT

April 11, 1993|By ELISE ARMACOST

Crofton will lose a source of controversy and dissent when Jordan Harding leaves as town manager this month.

The community will also lose a man with an extraordinary knowledge of small-town government, a colorful presence and a range of intellectual interests that rivals that of most academics.

This is a man who once arm-wrestled Elvis, speaks four languages and knows theistic existentialism the way he knows Crofton's traffic lights. If he likes to talk about himself, as his critics invariably point out, at least there is quite a lot to say.

His library, for instance. It takes people's breath away. The walls of his Chevy Chase home are lined with a 5,000-volume, card-cataloged library of literary criticism, art, philosophy and rare books, including the 1776 edition of Dryden's poems and Bloomfield's translation of Thucydides' "History of the Peloponnesian War."

"They're all insured," he says. "And there's not a novel in the house."

Monday through Friday, Mr. Harding gets up at 4 a.m. and reads for three hours on topics ranging from Renaissance art to ballet to political science. "Right now, I'm into Gothic cathedrals and Samuel Taylor Coleridge," he says. "Not only was he a great poet, but he translated German idealism for the English mind. He's one of my favorite people."

A Yale fellow and former labor relations specialist, Mr. Harding spent several years in the 1980s working in the U.S. Embassy in Poland. He travels to Europe three times a year, and lectures throughout the Balkans on how to set up municipal governments.

The Crofton Civic Association members who wanted a town manager to sit in the back of the room and read monthly reports, who would never do anything without asking them first, should have known better when they hired Mr. Harding.

If they'd paid attention to his resume and pulled some old newspaper clippings, they would have seen he wasn't the docile bureaucratic type.

Back in 1979, Mr. Harding, then mayor of the small Prince George's County town of New Carrollton, told The Washington Post: "I like to make things happen in my community" -- a comment he often repeated to the press. In that same Post article, a real estate broker who opposed his efforts to annex the New Carrollton Metro station, then one of the hottest pieces of land in the county, noted: "You've almost got to admire him for his audacity."

The fact is, control and action have always been central to Mr.

Harding's nature. He wanted that an nexation because he wanted control over what happened to New Carrollton. He ran for elected office in the first place because, "I saw a lot of things about government I didn't like. I decided I wanted to change things."

During 14 years as New Carrollton's mayor, he spearheaded a variety of municipal reforms, including financial disclosure acts, anti-nepotism laws and tax ceilings. And he cultivated a higher profile than the executives of most larger cities.

He still loves talking about the dozens and dozens of famous visitors he squired around his little town: ambassadors of foreign countries; former big-city mayors like Hubert Humphrey, Frank Rizzo and Richard Daley; Olympic gymnast Olga Korbut; Andy Griffith and Frank Sinatra; Elvis ("What a man!") and Muhammad Ali ("We went jogging together. He told me I was sloppy and out of shape, and that if I talked so much I'd never get in shape.")

In Crofton, the most commonly heard statement about Jordan Harding is that he acts as if he were the mayor, that he pushed for incorporation so he could be mayor.

The funny thing is, 15 years ago New Carrolltonians were saying the same thing: that he wanted a bigger city so could one day be a full-time, instead of part-time, mayor.

That never happened, of course, nor does it look as if he'll ever be mayor of Crofton, either. Mr. Harding loves politics, and he has the ego endemic to all politicians.

But the fact remains that he's never run for office since he left New Carrollton in 1984; nor, if you take him at his word, does he have any plans to now.

So you have to conclude that the visibility and take-charge attitude that so annoyed some Croftonites was not so much a symptom of frustrated political ambition as the inevitable

manifestation of Mr. Harding's own personality.

Perhaps he should have been more careful about making decisions on his own.

He admits now that he made a big mistake in the Great Trash Bag Controversy, which started when he decided -- without asking the CCA -- to eliminate dispensing discounted trash bags because the service cost his staff too much time. Residents were furious, and the CCA reinstated the service.

Then again, it's not hard to see how, to one who's helping the Balkans set up local governments, trash bags would seem too minor an issue to waste time discussing.

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

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