Reading The Man Behind The Signs

COMMENT

September 26, 1993|By ELISE ARMACOST | ELISE ARMACOST,Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

The first time Severna Park resident Walter Holtz met John Leopold, the latter was standing on a street corner, waving and holding a campaign sign. "I said to my wife, 'He's something, ain't he?' "

That he is.

Eleven years after he became the first Republican ever elected in District 31, six years after he started running for county executive, three years after a shocking loss to Sen. Philip Jimeno put him out of elected office, Mr. Leopold remains the single most enigmatic character in Anne Arundel County politics.

It's not his personal eccentricities that make him so, nor his varied intellectual accomplishments -- his painting, his poetry, his mastery of Mandarin Chinese. It's not even his long political resume, which includes 12 years in Hawaii before he showed up in Pasadena.

No, what's fascinating about Mr. Leopold is the way he looks at politics, and, as a result, the way other people look at him.

He talks about campaigning as "an art form," about "the excitement of taking an idea and translating it into law."

He talks about loving the "poetry and creativity of politics" and channeling his artistic talents into designs for his signs and campaign logos ("Simplicity," he says, "is the name of the game.")

He rhapsodizes about exploring "the geology of people's feelings."

He says he looks at his constituents as "family."

Mr. Leopold is ambitious; there's no question of that. He wants to be county executive in the worst way, and, he says, had he won that office four years ago, as he had hoped before Bobby Neall jumped into the race, "I would be running for governor today."

Nonetheless, to boil down his relentless roadside campaigning, door-to-door knocking and letter-to-the-editor writing to a case of bald ambition -- as the many who despise him have done -- is to grossly oversimplify the matter.

One can almost see his detractors rolling their eyes when he says, "I'm not into this for personal aggrandizement. I enjoy the human relations aspect." But there is truth in what he says, at least the last part of it.

Politicking fulfills some emotional need for him; it provides a link with humanity that one senses might be missing in the rest of his life.

His penchant for campaigning -- which he usually starts as soon as the last election is over -- has made him the butt of jokes; a Sun colleague once joked that she knew spring had arrived because the robins had returned and John Leopold was back on the side of the road.

But he sees nothing funny about it. Campaigning isn't just about elections for him. He doesn't stand out on the road or knock on doors to win votes (though both have given him enviable name recognition). He does it because it makes him feel good.

In an interview four years ago, he confided that the "most exhilarating day" of his career was the day following his 1982 election victory. As he stood on the roadside with a "thank you" sign, he said: "The warmth and sharing with the motorists was worth so much more to me than wealth or personal gain."

Last week he said: "Going door to door, being isolated with one person for a given period of time, is the purest form of political life."

The established political community doesn't understand any of this. A sign is a sign, not a work of art. Campaigning is something you do to make people know who you are so they'll vote for you, not to "explore the geology of people's feelings."

Though he has his supporters in the political community, most local politicians view his ideas as weird. His eccentricities, coupled with his tendency to act as a political lone wolf, make him both unfathomable and unlikable. But citizens such as Mr. Holtz see the same traits in an entirely different way.

How deep is Mr. Leopold's support? No one knows for sure. He believes it's deep enough to win the executive's race; other pols say it's shallow.

What is clear is that his supporters possess an unusual fervor. They act as though, well, as though he's more a member of the family than a political figure. As abrasive as he apparently behaves with other politicians, he comes across as a compassionate friend with people he meets at the door. It doesn't take much to make them jump to his defense.

I learned that last week when I was bombarded with phone calls and letters from Leopold supporters, who took me to task for failing to mention in an editorial his opposition to a 1989 pension law. Then they expounded on his virtues.

"He's always doing something for his followers," said Jim Thompson of Pasadena. "His being a college graduate, he's very qualified. And nobody owns him."

"John Leopold isn't part of them," said Mr. Holtz. "The little people like us know he doesn't owe allegiance to anybody but us. . . . He stands for letting the little guy get a fair shot, 'cause he's the little guy."

In fact, Mr. Leopold could hardly be described as a "little guy." He's the son of an internationally renowned opththalmologist, an accomplished academic and a politician since age 25. And he can spend his days knocking on doors and waving to motorists because he inherited enough money to provide an income (though, to be sure, he does not flaunt his advantages).

Mr. Holtz doesn't know any of this, and wouldn't care if he did.

What he knows is that John Leopold listens to him, and isn't liked by them.

That seems quite enough.

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