The man who'd kiss a pig chafes at 'boss' image

May 29, 1994|By John A. Morris | John A. Morris,Sun Staff Writer

State Sen. Michael J. Wagner's voice rises and words fly when he is described as a political boss who rules smoke-filled back rooms.

"It's just another cliche . . . to throw around during a campaign," says the county's senior Democratic official. "But once they [his opponents] say it, then what? . . . What else do they have to say? Am I a good boss or am I a bad boss?"

Mr. Wagner, 52, chafes at the stereotype that has dogged him for years. County Councilman C. Edward Middlebrooks, a former ally who has switched to the Republican Party, wants to make the image a campaign issue as he considers challenging Mr. Wagner in November.

"I realized for years that Wagner's machine dominated North County," said Mr. Middlebrooks. "It was only recently that I realized he wants to dominate the County Council, the appeals board and the liquor board, too."

Mr. Wagner's agitation grows at the suggestion he is an old-school politician. He recites the charitable fund-raisers and community events in which he, his family, campaign volunteers and employees of his catering and restaurant supply businesses participate each year.

For the past six years, a Wagner-led team of bell-ringers has raised more money for the Salvation Army at Christmas than any other team. He has participated in crab-eating contests to save the Chesapeake Bay and served his constituents dinner and dessert as a celebrity waiter to raise money to fight heart disease.

"Is that losing contact?" he asks. "I'll put my community record against anybody's. Just last week, a woman came and asked me if I would be in a 'kiss-a-pig' contest to raise money for diabetes research. And I guarantee you I'll be at the county fair kissing a pig. For God's sake, I've worked Ferndale Day for 17 years. Is that losing touch?"

Mr. Middlebrooks, who was elected to the council as a Democrat in 1990, says he is feeling a touch of the senator's wrath. Mr. Wagner has recruited James "Ed" DeGrange, a Glen Burnie businessman, to his "Partnership for Progress" ticket in an effort to replace Mr. Middlebrooks on the County Council.

"He wants to be the granddaddy for the whole county," said Mr. Middlebrooks. "Unless you want to do things his way, he's not interested in your opinions."

Mr. Middlebrooks said the disagreement began when he named David Schafer, son of former Glen Burnie Sen. H. Erle Schafer, to the county Board of Appeals. Mr. Wagner, he said, had wanted him to reappoint William C. "Huck" Knight, a longtime supporter.

"Mike [Wagner] came to me right after the election and said he wanted Huck Knight back on the appeals board," Mr. Middlebrooks said. "I said no way and he hung up."

The senator has since found a $5,000-a-year, part-time job for Mr. Knight as a county liquor inspector.

Mr. Middlebrooks, his career in Democratic politics effectively blocked by Mr. Wagner, switched parties two weeks ago as he considers a run for the Senate in District 32, which includes Linthicum, Glen Burnie, Severn and Maryland City.

No doubt, Mr. Wagner is influential in the county. Because of his ability to raise campaign money, his good relations with Gov. rTC William Donald Schaefer and his lack of opponents during the past two elections, he has become a potent ally of others looking for votes.

Being part of the Wagner ticket is considered an advantage.

"He puts together a very carefully carved political team," said state Del. Victor A. Sulin, a Severn Democrat. "He tries to put together a geographically balanced ticket. He looks for the strongest people in each area and makes sure those areas where he's weakest are covered."

As one of five senators to represent Anne Arundel, he has a say in the appointment of two key county commissions. Tom Riggin, a longtime Wagner confidant, now chairs the liquor board, and Richard J. Bernhardt, a former campaign manager, sits on the Board of Elections Supervisors. Both are part-time jobs. Mr. Riggin earns $15,000 annually at his job; Mr. Bernhardt, $4,000.

Mr. Wagner and the other senators also appoint the 13 part-time liquor inspectors, whose diligence or lenience in the enforcement of infractions can make an enormous difference in the profitability of a bar or package store. The jobs -- which pay $5,000 annually -- require no qualification other than being supportive of the appointing senator.

Mr. Wagner is not embarrassed to reward his supporters with patronage jobs.

"It's not quid pro quo, but it's a job you give your supporters," he says matter-of-factly. "You don't give it to your opponent's people."

A flamboyant cigar-smoker with a prospering catering business, he also seems more comfortable working the corridors of power than working a crowd.

Although he has worked to help neighbors of Baltimore-Washington International Airport live with the noise, the senator has little patience with the Airport Coordinating Team, a group of residents whose demands he considers extreme and unattainable.

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