December Surprise From Middlebrooks

COMMENT

December 19, 1993|By ELISE ARMACOST

From now on, just call him "Fast Eddie" Middlebrooks.

That little coup he managed with the Anne Arundel County Council chairmanship last week would have made the original Fast Eddie -- former Chicago alderman Ed Vrdolyak, who was famous for his ability to cut a deal -- proud.

Being council chairman is not exactly like being president of the Senate -- the job basically boils down to running Monday night meetings.

But council members care about the prestige factor, and it's a rare December when they don't go through elaborate maneuverings to decide who's going to be chairman and vice chairman for the next 12 months. It takes four votes to win this game, so before the climactic council meeting they all go around trying to make one another promise to vote for whom they want.

There isn't much loyalty from year to year.

In 1990, Councilman Carl G. "Dutch" Holland, R-Pasadena, suggested in public that Councilman David Boschert, D-Crownsville, wanted to become vice chairman because he was unemployed and needed the money. The next year, Dutch voted for Dave as chairman and Dave -- who Councilwoman Maureen Lamb, D-Annapolis, thought she had on her side -- voted for Dutch as vice chair.

Alas, after two years as Dave's second mate Dutch decided this year that he wanted to be the captain. By the Friday before the Dec. 6 council meeting they'd each come up with three votes.

In Dutch's camp: Diane Evans, R-Arnold; George Bachman, D-Linthicum; and, of course, Dutch. In Dave's corner: Dave; former chairwoman Virginia Clagett, D-West River; and Maureen Lamb, who has stopped being mad at him for playing Benedict Arnold two years ago.

The prize rested in Ed Middlebrooks' hands.

Dutch insisted he'd promised him his vote. Mr. Middlebrooks' fellow Democrats, meanwhile, were groveling on their knees and begging him not to vote for a Republican, especially not Dutch, who can be about as diplomatic as a pit bull.

On Friday night, Mr. Middlebrooks said he was being bombarded by Democrats, and that that would "certainly weigh heavily in my decision." It looked like Dave Boschert was safe for another year.

But the wheels and deals were turning. Mr. Middlebrooks was telling the truth when he said party pressure would influence his decision, but what he meant wasn't what everybody thought he meant. When the moment of truth arrived, Mr. Boschert withdrew his own name and submitted Mr. Middlebrooks' instead. The Dems lined up behind him.

Dutch was out in the cold. Fast Eddie had arrived. And everybody who pays attention to these things was shocked.

They shouldn't have been, really. Mr. Middlebrooks held the trump card: You vote for me, or I vote for them.

But nobody saw it coming because in the three years since this council was elected, Mr. Middlebrooks -- a young lawyer from Glen Burnie who has never had a bad hair day -- has shown little ambition to be its leader, nor many signs of being a wheeler-dealer.

He takes credit for "shaking things up" by asking tough questions, but, in truth, he's been pretty easy to overlook the past three years. Between Mr. Boschert's speechifying, Mr. Holland's bull-in-the-china-shop tactics, Mrs. Lamb's crises and Mrs. Evans' intra-council hell-raising, he was often forgotten.

He also has seemed the most cynical about the political process. He has been known to roll his eyes during some of the council's more priceless moments. "I like to keep things humorous and light," he once said.

Even last week he says he was "giggling" when Mr. Boschert nominated him, tickled to see the surprised look on people's faces. He knows how to keep a secret as well as tell a joke.

Yet there have been signs that he's not all fun and games.

During the controversy over whether to fund a new Andover Middle or Solley Elementary, he showed he could both dish out political jabs and build consensus.

"I was impressed with his determination to get the projects he wanted for his district," said Del. Joan Cadden, D-Brooklyn Park, who came up with the compromise that allowed both Andover and Solley to get started. "And I was impressed that, when showed a way to have both, he was eager to work it out."

Not everyone is so enthusiastic about him, however. And his biggest detractor is none other than Sen. Michael J. Wagner, D-Ferndale, the uncrowned king of the county Democratic Party and a powerful force in North County in particular.

"I just find him difficult to work with," Mr. Wagner says. "He's always doing his own thing. He's never a part of the group."

Apparently popular Glen Burnie businessman Ed DeGrange is; Mr. Wagner has drafted him to run against Mr. Middlebrooks in 1994.

The councilman points out that he won without Mr. Wagner's support three years ago and takes pride in not being part of the "machine." Predictably, he makes light of predictions of his political demise.

But he is no fool. He knows he's in for a tough race.

It's time to get serious, and let "Fast Eddie" show what he's made of.

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

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