For Alton, election year's familiar ring

August 21, 1994|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Sun Staff Writer

Joe Alton's phone rings often these days.

A candidate for state's attorney wants to meet him for lunch. A caller running for county treasurer asks him to look at her campaign sign. Another candidate, an aspiring delegate, wants help campaigning at a shopping center.

Nearly 20 years after he left public office, young politicians still want advice from the man some say was the most popular elected official in Anne Arundel County in half a century.

Few politicians have understood the political system as well. Although a Republican, he won election in a heavily Democratic county, serving as sheriff, state senator and Anne Arundel's first county executive.

"Joe Alton is a pivotal person in the history of this county," says Phillip Scheibe, who served on Anne Arundel's first County Council. "People talk of time as 'Before Alton' and 'After Alton.' "

He could have been governor.

But Joseph W. Alton Jr., now 75, also knew the sordid side of politics: the back room deals and money passed under the table.

Within days of completing his third term as county executive, he pleaded guilty to corruption charges and was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison.

He was the first public official jailed and released in the Maryland U.S. attorney's political corruption investigation that also netted Spiro T. Agnew and former Baltimore County Executive Dale Anderson.

But Mr. Alton remained popular.

More than 1,000 people turned out at his going-away party before he drove to the prison in Allenwood, Pa. More than 1,500 attended the party welcoming him home.

Now, 19 years after his release, he spends his time building additions onto his Annapolis home, jogging two miles a day, talking with old friends and occasionally dispensing advice to eager politicians.

Scattered about the home are mementos of his days in politics: the seal of Anne Arundel County on one wall, a picture of him shaking hands with Richard M. Nixon on another.

Joe Alton blames his father for his political career. Joe Alton Sr. was an outgoing man who dared to register as a Republican when the GOP was still known as the party of Lincoln and the Reconstructionists.

"I was so overwhelmed by him, I just believed he was invincible," Mr. Alton said.

Joe Sr. became the GOP chairman in Anne Arundel and introduced his oldest son to politics by having him hand out ballots at polling booths.

When the elder Alton ran for sheriff in 1934, Joe Jr., then 14, was his assistant, following him as he canvassed neighborhoods and campaigned in back road saloons.

Joe Sr. could speak effortlessly to strangers and make them forget he was neither Democrat nor Catholic. But the hand-shaking and backslapping didn't come easily for Joe Jr.

A quiet, shy boy

He was a quiet, shy boy who blushed when someone talked to him. On campaign swings with his father, he pretended to knock on doors, then told his father no one was home.

"My stomach would be churning," Joe Jr. recalls.

Still, Joe Sr. tried to interest his son in politics. During his first term in office, he made Joe Jr. his driver even though the boy was too young to have a driver's license.

At times, the youth helped with law enforcement. Once, they were called to the home of a drunk who was threatening his family with a shotgun.

The sheriff devised a plan in which Joe Jr. would drive up to the porch, run into the house, and rescue a child while Joe Sr. threw tear gas in a back window. When Joe Jr. started to run onto the porch, the drunk poked the shotgun through the screen door and pulled the trigger. Luckily, the shell in the barrel was already spent, and young Joe wasn't harmed. He still has the empty shell.

After graduating from high school, Joe Jr. tried to enlist in the Royal Air Force as a fighter pilot. Rejected because of bad eyesight, he spent World War II building PT boats at an Annapolis shipyard.

Pulled into politics

After the war, Joe Jr. went to work building houses. Slowly, his father pulled him back into politics, asking for his help in returning nonviolent fugitives to the county. Then, in 1947, his chief deputy died. Sheriff Alton offered Joe Jr. the job.

"I said, 'I don't want to be a big, fat politician, Daddy,' " Joe Jr.

recalls. But he gave in and agreed to help temporarily.

Two years later, Joe Alton Sr. died in office. Joe Jr. wanted to go back to building houses, but his father's friends wouldn't let him. They pleaded with him to run for sheriff, told him his father would want him to run.

In his heart, Mr. Alton knew they were right. He left construction and returned to politics.

He easily won the 1950 election and two others that followed. Later he went to the state Senate, where he championed populist causes. He was the only white man to vote for a bill to end discrimination against blacks in restaurants and hotels. And he backed a bill to provide bus transportation to Catholic schoolchildren.

But his biggest goal was to bring charter government to Anne Arundel County.

Cleaning up the county

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