Agee fights his image as 'No. 2'

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

If voters were choosing the smartest man in Anne Arundel County on Sept. 13 instead of the Democratic nominee for county executive, Robert Agee might win a landslide.

The Crofton resident is universally described as bright, imaginative, an idea man, a problem solver. For more than 20 years, elected officials have turned to him to unravel the knots of county and state government.

But Mr. Agee, vice president of Chaney Enterprises, a Southern Maryland sand and gravel conglomerate, has always toiled in the shadows. During the 1970s, he was an aide to the county delegation to the Maryland General Assembly. He was chief aide to former County Executive O. James Lighthizer from 1982 to 1990.

Critics say that Mr. Agee was a valued No. 2 man, but that he has yet to prove that he can handle the burdens and responsibilities of being out front, of being a leader.

"Bob Agee has never taken a vote in his life," said state Del. Theodore Sophocleus, one of Mr. Agee's four competitors and the Democrat's 1990 nominee for executive. "He's always taken direction. . . He's described himself as a policy wonk. Well, that's what he is, a policy wonk."

On the contrary, said Maryland Secretary of State Tyras S. "Bunk" Athey, one of Mr. Agee's campaign managers.

"Bob knows what's involved with being a leader," said Mr. Athey, a former state delegate from Jessup. "He's just never had that opportunity to do it."

Mr. Agee, who grew up in Glen Burnie, slipped quietly onto the scene in 1967 as a college intern working for state Sen. Ted Bertier, and, after he graduated from Western Maryland College in 1970, as an aide to then-state delegates Athey and Joseph Sachs.

When Mr. Athey became chairman of Anne Arundel's delegation, Mr. Agee's duties expanded to researching and drafting legislation for all the county's delegates and senators.

Everywhere he has gone, Mr. Agee has generated ideas that have made others look good, Mr. Athey said. When it became apparent in the 1970s that schools were graduating students who could not read their job applications, Mr. Agee helped craft the standards that allow teachers to hold students back if they cannot not read at basic levels.

And, when jet noise became unbearable at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, Mr. Agee was instrumental in getting the state to purchase the homes hardest hit and to finance the sound-proofing of other affected homes, Mr. Athey said.

In the late 1970s, Mr. Agee was hired as executive director of the Anne Arundel Trade Council, a county-wide business coalition. He also settled in Crofton, rising to the board of directors of the Crofton Improvement Association, and for a short period serving as Crofton town manager.

There, he met Secretary of Transportation Lighthizer, who was then also a Crofton board member. When Mr. Lighthizer won the 1982 county executive race, he hired Mr. Agee as his chief of staff.

"It started as a staff management position, but he evolved into the idea guy," Mr. Lighthizer said. "He's a very good strategist. He can define the issues. He can anticipate what moves opponents will make."

During the administration's eight years, Mr. Agee authored a 13-point growth management plan that led to controversial fees paid by developers to pay for schools and other amenities. He also brokered a compromise with the residents of Hillsmere that allowed the county to build Quiet Waters Park, a regional recreation center outside Annapolis.

Mr. Lighthizer wanted an amphitheater; the community feared the noise and crowds it could draw. Mr. Agee listened to the residents and drafted a compromise that allowed the county to set up a temporary amphitheaters for small concerts.

"Quiet Waters would have gone down the drain without that," said County Councilwoman Maureen Lamb, an Annapolis Democrat.

In part because of his relaxed sense of humor, Mr. Athey said, Mr. Agee "can deal with people. He can go into a hostile room, and work with the people there. He may not be able to make them 100 percent happy but he can work with them."

Mr. Agee excelled at another of his assignments -- pushing administration proposals through the council, Mr. Lighthizer said. Although the votes were close, the administration lost few initiatives, he said.

"Lighthizer always won his battles thanks in large part to Agee," said former County Councilman Michael Gilligan.

Mr. Agee impressed the council with the soundness of his arguments.

"He used to say that I didn't pay attention to him," Mrs. Lamb said. "Sometimes I did; sometimes I didn't. One time I didn't was on the pension.

"He said it was a bad piece of legislation and that you'll be sorry if you vote for it, and I was."

The Lighthizer administration proposed sweetening the pension for appointed and elected officials in 1989 to keep top officials from jumping to the private sector before the term's end. The changes allow certain officials -- including Mr. Agee and Mr. Sophocleus -- to retire at 50 or after 16 years' employment.

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