Bruiser on the Loose

January 26, 1994|By BRUCE L. BORTZ

One of this year's most bruising political match-ups looms in Anne Arundel County, where the populist John Leopold is battling the conservative John Gary for the chance to become county executive. The incumbent, Bobby Neall, is bowing out after a single term.

The fratricidal conflict seems not only harmful to the Republican Party, but unnecessary, with Messrs. Leopold and Gary similar in many respects. Both are 50-year-old legislative veterans who have intensely focused on local issues.

And both are equally adept at getting attention. Mr. Leopold has popularized the practice of sign waving at busy local intersections. And, at the risk of being called a grandstander, he's shown that writing strong letters to newspaper editors on controversial topics -- and getting them published -- can keep your name before the voters even after you've left office. Mr. Gary has always been available to reporters for a quotable quote, usually blasting some state fiscal policy -- he is a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

But the differences between the two men are huge. Ideologically, Mr. Leopold is moderate to liberal. He's worked well with some Democrats, including former Gov. Harry Hughes, who appointed him to a state education commission. In the legislature from 1982 to 1990, he achieved some notoriety for trying to import to Maryland a Michigan innovation for financing college-tuition bills at state public institutions (it failed to win passage).

Mr. Gary is one of the legislature's more conservative members, known mostly for three things: a sharply adversarial relationship with Democrats; whittling down capital projects, even those directly benefiting his own district; and concerted efforts to combat pornography and public-school sex education. Amid the ''family values'' rhetoric of the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston, he seemed right at home.

While Mr. Leopold talks of crime, education, the environment, property taxes, county pensions and other subjects, his campaign focuses on the need to cope with growth. Mr. Leopold asserts that the county bureaucracy, under Mr. Neall, has consistently ignored Anne Arundel's adequate-facilities law, which requires that new development be preceded by the infrastructure (roads, water and sewer, schools, etc.) to support it. Mr. Leopold blames political contributions from developers running the ''county show'' for ''irresponsibly'' exacerbating school and traffic congestion.

And, Mr. Leopold insists, the developers' candidate in 1994 is none other than Mr. Gary, himself a developer, who has taken much of his campaign money from developers, builders and real-estate interests.

Mr. Leopold has other attack issues. A garden-variety business dispute between Mr. Gary's construction company and a materials supplier proves, Mr. Leopold says, that his opponent couldn't properly handle the county's $650 million budget, He also says, nearly as ineffectively, that Mr. Gary hampered the county's business climate by publicly referring once, several years ago, to homosexuals as ''queers.''

Mr. Leopold's strongest attack, and one borne out by public documents, is that Mr. Gary assisted in an attempted ownership transfer of the county's Bingo World -- an operation whose original owners were officially accused of laundering money for organized crime. Mr. Leopold vows to rid the county of Bingo World altogether if he's elected.

The Leopold-Gary primary could get still nastier. It looks as if Mr. Leopold will continue to hammer away at Mr. Gary's past efforts to ease state restrictions on home education, and to eliminate sex education. Mr. Leopold has always been more than willing to call them as harshly as he sees them, and he has consistently managed to get under the skins of other Anne Arundel County politicians, Democrat and Republican, including Mr. Gary more than once.

To win the primary, Mr. Leopold must capture about 15,000 Republican votes. He certainly has a head start. In 1990, he narrowly lost a bid for the state Senate after dropping out of the race for county executive when Mr. Neall unexpectedly joined the contest. But he gained strong name identification in a fairly large part of the county. He started vigorous shoe-leather campaigning almost three years ago, well before Mr. Gary got rolling. Mr. Leopold knows how to run a grass-roots campaign, and won't allow himself to be outworked.

So far no prominent Democrat has decisively entered the race, perhaps for good reason. Though Anne Arundel County Republicans are outnumbered 1.5 to 1 by Democrats, conservative-leaning independents almost make up the gap. Except for Mr. Neall's predecessor, Jim Lighthizer, the county elects Republican county executives.

Mr. Leopold may show himself to be a better fit for the county if he tones down his attacks, stops trying to force Mr. Gary from the race and stresses his own command of the issues and his honest, balanced devotion to public service. He has indicated that he thinks Mr. Neall, with his emphasis on fiscal responsibility, was the right man for county executive in 1990, but that the next few years require greater emphasis on people and programs. To be consistent, Mr. Leopold should ''go positive'' by trying to sell himself and his suggested programs.

Bruce L. Bortz edits The Maryland Report newsletter. He comments for The Sun on Maryland politics.

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