Gary focuses on keeping thugs away CAMPAIGN 1994

THE POLITICAL GAME

August 31, 1994|By John A. Morris | John A. Morris,Sun Staff Writer

Even as fewer crimes are committed in Anne Arundel County, the fear of crime dominates its politics.

Candidates for nearly every office tout plans to get tough on the county's criminal element. And, for at least one candidate, that means getting tough on Baltimore City and Prince George's County.

Del. John G. Gary, running unopposed for Anne Arundel County executive in the Republican primary, has campaigned on a theme of "protecting our borders against an invasion of violent crime" since his announcement in December. It's a theme he has repeated at forums and campaign stops throughout the summer.

"Already we have seen these criminal elements leaking across our borders, threatening our lives, our property and our quality of life," Mr. Gary said in a letter that went to 5,000 registered Republicans in December.

He hammered on the theme again after county police made 139 arrests, many involving Baltimore residents, along the Central Light Rail Line in May. The arrests were for crimes ranging from shoplifting to assault and battery.

This "clearly supports my contention that criminals are crossing our borders, robbing our merchants, stealing our autos and terrorizing our residents," Mr. Gary said in a June 1 press release. "I reaffirm my commitment to do whatever is necessary to secure our borders and protect our citizens."

Mr. Gary's position has made him the target of opponents and newspaper columnists.

"John's using it as something that people want to hear," said Democratic county executive candidate Robert Agee. "It means

we'll keep 'them' out to protect 'us.' That has a resonance to it, but I'm not sure it's healthy.

"When you play to people's fears with themes like 'protect our borders,' you only heighten their anxiety," said Mr. Agee, one of three Democrats in the Sept. 13 primary who have also released anti-crime platforms. The winner of the primary will face Mr. Gary in November.

The other Democrats are perennial candidate Louise Rothschild Beauregard, H. Erle Schafer, former clerk of the Circuit Court, Del. Theodore J. Sophocleus and county police Cpl. Larry E. Walker.

Mr. Gary, last week, said he is misunderstood.

"We didn't intend it to be a hot button," Mr. Gary said. "I was astounded the way it was perceived."

Mr. Gary said the idea for the "protect our borders" theme grew out of new, mobile drug-testing technology that he hopes to introduce to the county. He said the technology is currently used in Memphis, Tenn., to intercept drug-users and traffickers entering that city.

"We know we have drug trafficking coming into our county" from Washington, D.C., through Prince George's County, Mr. Gary said. "The intent was to say I've got a method to deal with drug dealers coming into our county."

"When I use the term 'protecting our borders,' I plan to [use the drug-testing technology to] stop and detain and arrest these people." Mr. Gary said the "protect our borders" theme did not generate a large response until a group of residents asked the state in May to close the Linthicum Heights rail station. "That definitely caused our phones to ring," he said.

Members of the Linthicum-Shipley Improvement Association were concerned that the station, which opened in April 1993, had brought increased crime to their neighborhood. The request touched off an emotional debate, in which residents castigated the state's Democratic administration and lawmakers who supported light rail.

This summer, the Maryland Transit Administration began joint patrols along the rail line in cooperation with the Anne Arundel, Baltimore County and Baltimore police, and arrests have dwindled.

Republican Sheriff Robert G. Pepersack Sr. joined the fray, sending a letter in support of the residents to Gov. William Donald Schaefer. Last week, Mr. Pepersack, whose responsibilities include courthouse security and serving warrants and who is running for re-election, told U.S. News and World Report that he is comfortable riding the train only because he's "a law enforcement official with a 9 mm pistol."

Still, it has been Mr. Gary's rhetoric that has held center stage. He said last week that he has never supported closing the station, but he did encourage the residents to seek greater protection from county police and the MTA.

Overall, crime is on the decline in Anne Arundel, police say. Statistics released last week show the most serious crimes -- homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, breaking and entering, theft, auto theft and arson -- dropped 3.4 percent during the first six months of 1994.

Mr. Gary said he would not back down from his position, though he wonders if crime "is as hot an issue as the politicians make it out to be. I now think education and jobs are becoming the biggest issues with the public."

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