Looking Too Happy to Be Planning Run

COMMENT

May 08, 1994|By ELISE ARMACOST

The political rumor mill is hard at work, churning out gossip that Anne Arundel County Executive Bobby Neall might run for re-election, after all.

In fact, the hearsay is starting to take on a life of its own. Would-be candidates, Democrat and Republican, are getting antsy about jumping into the race because they're afraid Mr. Neall may change his mind.

Hooey, he says. "I'm done. You know those Perdue oven-stuffer roasters, the ones with the little timer that pops up when they're ready to come out of the oven? That's me."

Maybe he's putting us on. But I don't think so.

He looks too darned happy. And he wouldn't if the desire to run again were gnawing at his insides.

The executive has always been one to wear his moods on his sleeve. Journalists covering the county beat have seen most of them at one time or another these last four years.

He was over-tired and positively foul after one particularly late County Council meeting that didn't go his way. He had stayed in his office on the fourth floor of the Arundel Center in Annapolis awaiting the council's vote, and he looked so sour and miserable when we ventured in for his reaction that I admit I was tempted to turn around, walk out and fudge some line about Mr. Neall being unavailable for comment.

He has never been very good at putting on a brave face when doing things he didn't want to do, either. I have a photo of him dressed as Santa one year. He looks like his favorite reindeer just died.

Another time his press secretary made plans with a Sun reporter for Mr. Neall to discuss his environmental platform. The reporter mistakenly thought Mr. Neall wanted this meeting. He was met instead with a grumpy executive who opened the conversation with something akin to, "Well, what do you want?"

Mr. Neall's best side and best moods have always shone when he was doing what he enjoys most -- solving problems and working on the nuts and bolts of county government. He was dynamic and persuasive the day he stood on a picnic table in front of the Arundel Center North in Glen Burnie and entreated county workers to accept a pay cut or risk layoffs.

He's never too busy to explain the convolutions of the budget process or long-term effects of the property tax cap.

He can be funny and down-to-earth, too. He had the press corps in stitches the morning after he chased a burglar, on foot, out of his Davidsonville home. And he never looked better than when, on his way to Annapolis for the intruder's trial, he saw him hitchhiking his way to court and stopped to give him a lift.

The thing about Bob Neall is, he's not good at faking it. So the fact that he's acted as if a giant burden has been lifted off his shoulders ever since he said he was getting out of politics has to make one think that's what he really wants to do -- at least for a while.

He was tense the whole time he was testing the gubernatorial waters. He went to just about every Lincoln Day dinner in Maryland last year and barely suppressed how much he hated doing it.

In many ways, Mr. Neall is an atypical politician.

Ask most pols why they run and, after they've offered the predictable platitudes about wanting to serve, they will tell you they relish the game, they thrive on the competition. They love campaigning, riding in parades, schmoozing with the crowds, hobnobbing with movers and shakers.

Mr. Neall despises all that.

Consequently, he's not particularly good at it.

It's easy now to forget he won the 1990 election by a very thin margin, a close shave many political insiders attributed to his flagging campaign efforts at the end of the race.

What Mr. Neall enjoys about politics is not the game, but the job, especially one that presents the challenge of complex management problems.

As difficult as the last four years have been and as much as I'm sure he would have preferred a term in which cuts in state aid and a property tax cap were not the order of the day, I'm convinced he enjoyed grappling with these issues. He never whined about the various economic obstacles that cropped up because he found satisfaction in finding ways around them.

Last week, he waved a chart showing the five-year history of revenues and expenditures during his term, with both growing at a scant 3.6 percent annually, like a trophy.

If Mr. Neall could waltz right into the governor's office and start retooling state government the way he has the county, he probably would. The job would be fun for him.

But he can't waltz right in, and campaigning is not fun.

Now, of course, the rumor mill has it that running for executive is a different story, that he'd be virtually a shoo-in and wouldn't face the bitter battle that a statewide race for governor would entail. That's all true.

But Bob Neall being Bob Neall, you'd expect to see the anxiety in his face if he were dying to get back in or planning to get back in, even though he really doesn't want to.

Instead, he's up there in his office, tieless, coatless, preparing to take a two-week trip to Spain during budget month, laughing and joking about being a lame Perdue roaster instead of a lame duck.

When he starts looking grumpy again, that's when I'll believe he's running for county executive.

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

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