The Best Of Times For A Neall Race

COMMENT

July 25, 1993|By ELISE ARMACOST

Bobby Neall says he's "in the process."

He says he's "deciding to decide."

He recites a half-dozen factors he says he must weigh before committing himself to a run for the Governor's Mansion.

Can he raise the money? Can he beat Rep. Helen Delich Bentley in a primary? Will he be too bruised and too broke to win a general election if he does beat her? What about the impact on his family?

Etc., etc., etc.

The county executive's playing it coy these days, and who can blame him? From the minute he says he's in -- unequivocally, irrevocably -- he won't have a moment's peace. He won't make any announcement on his intentions before Labor Day, he says.

Reading between all the caveats and conditions, however, it's increasingly clear that Mr. Neall will run for governor -- even if he has to face Mrs. Bentley in a primary, a possibility he refused to entertain just two months ago.

He wants to run. Other prominent Republicans want him to. And, while he says he still has some "fine-tuning" to do in county government, he basically feels he has accomplished what he set out to do here.

"I still like my job," he said last week. "But this might make a decent jumping-off point."

He's right. In politics, as in life, timing is everything. And while some -- including Mr. Neall himself -- have argued that, at 44, he is young enough to wait eight or more years to run for the state's highest office, his chances of winning probably never will be better than in 1994.

He suits the times. He stands for affordable, "plain vanilla"

government at a time when people deplore extravagance and bureaucratic waste. He's shown no qualms about cutting programs and whole departments at a time when taxpayers want elected leaders at all levels to be bolder about cutting spending.

He's distinctly unflashy at a time when people resent pols who flaunt the perks of office. Mr. Neall drives his own car and eschews county credit cards. Last week, he was on his way to Circuit Court when saw the man accused of breaking into his house trying to hitch a ride to the same place; Mr. Neall picked him up and drove him to court. This sort of behavior goes over well these days.

Were he to wait and run four or eight years from now, who knows whether the public will have rediscovered a taste for more sophistication in public policymaking than Mr. Neall possesses? More important, who knows how well his sweeping reforms of county government will stand up over the coming years?

Right now, Mr. Neall can use these reforms to sell himself to the rest of the state. There's a general sense that the average Anne Arundel resident approves of what he has done to reduce government, as well as a feeling that most Marylanders believe state government could use a dose of the same medicine.

He can point to his resume and say: "Look, I cut 440 jobs, reorganized the government and no one felt any change in services that matter most -- libraries, parks, roads. Let me do for the state what I've done for Anne Arundel."

But what happens if two or three years from now his cuts start taking a toll on the quality of services? Or -- and this is a far more likely possibility -- the full effect of the property tax cap kicks in, provoking profound revenue losses that harm schools, roads, parks and other basic services?

It will not matter that the tax cap was not Mr. Neall's fault (except to the extent that he failed to take the lead in fighting it). If the county is in bad shape come 1998 or 2004, no one will want him to run the state.

He knows this well enough. "If I don't have high marks here," he said, "then what do I have to offer?"

Del. Ted Sophocleus, the former county councilman who lost to Mr. Neall in the county executive's race of 1990 and would likely run again for the post in 1994, has an obvious motive for wanting him to run for governor next year. Nonetheless, Mr. Sophocleus is right when he says Mr. Neall's marks probably will never be higher than they are now, before any negative long-term results of his administration "come back to roost."

With the notable exception of county unions, who want Mr. Neall out of public office, the local political community seems to welcome the prospect of Mr. Neall running for governor next year. That includes Democrats as well as Republicans, his enemies as well as his friends, all driven by a variety of motives.

Along with Mr. Sophocleus, Del. John Gary, the Millersville Republican, stands to benefit most by Mr. Neall's foray into state politics. Mr. Gary badly wants to run for executive, but he wouldn't oppose an ally such as Mr. Neall. With the executive's departure, Mr. Gary becomes the top Republican candidate. Other local GOP candidates want him to run, hoping they'll be able to ride his coattails to victory.

On the Democratic side, the most liberal factions can't wait to get him out of the Arundel Center. I learned that at a recent meeting of County Councilwoman Maureen Lamb's Friday morning Democratic Breakfast Club, where Mr. Neall was reviled as a "lizard" and a "jerk."

More moderate Democrats, though, recognize that Mr. Neall has done a decent job of responding to the voters' demand for government that costs less without taking away the services they value most. Says Sen. Michael J. Wagner, a Ferndale Democrat, "He's definitely a man for these times."

If he's smart, he'll realize they won't last forever.

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

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