Sophocleus seen sparring still with 1990 opponent CAMPAIGN FOR 1994

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

Theodore J. Sophocleus thought he had won four years ago. He still can't quite believe he didn't.

His come-from-behind campaign for Anne Arundel County Executive had been carefully scripted and just as carefully acted out. But the Linthicum Democrat did not win, falling to Republican Robert R. Neall by 3,000 votes, less than 3 percent of the vote.

"The next day was really tough as you drove around and saw your signs still up in everybody's yard," recalled Mr. Sophocleus, one of five Democratic primary candidates who hope to succeed Mr. Neall this year. "You have a strong feeling that you let people down."

Looking back now, he's not sure what more he could have done.

For eight years as a county councilman from Linthicum, he worked slavishly for constituents, attending to complaints about potholes, trash collection, snow removal. To better understand residents' needs countywide, he attended church dinners and other civic events outside his geographically small district.

To give him more time to campaign, he sold Ted's Pharmacy, which he had owned and operated in Linthicum since 1980. To help voters learn to pronounce and remember his name, he unleashed an unprecedented, 5-month-long barrage of cable television ads leading up to the general election.

It looked as if the effort would pay off on Nov. 6, 1990. Early exit polls by Baltimore television stations showed Mr. Sophocleus comfortably ahead of the heavily favored Mr. Neall. However, as evening approached, the tide turned.

"Most of the pollsters had never seen that type of scenario before," said Mr. Sophocleus, who asked the election board to recount the ballots.

"There were questions that we had no explanations for," he recalled. "We just wanted to dot the 'i's' and cross the 't's' before we surrendered."

Some say that he never surrendered, that he never conceded defeat to Mr. Neall. As he campaigns for the Democratic nomination, they say, Mr. Sophocleus still appears to be running against the incumbent.

At an Aug. 3 political debate in Odenton, Mr. Sophocleus railed against Mr. Neall, who announced his retirement from politics almost a year ago. Casting himself as a man of the people, Mr. Sophocleus said the Neall administration has failed to listen to the average citizen.

"That's not democracy," he said. "That's dictatorship."

John Gary, a state delegate and the Republican nominee for executive, said he is puzzled by Mr. Sophocleus' campaign. "I think he's trying to say Mr. Neall is cold, hard-hearted and impersonal, and that he's nice, warm and fuzzy. But he's not going to be running against Mr. Neall. The Democrats know who their opponent in the general election is going to be."

Mr. Neall reacted with a bemused grin to Mr. Sophocleus' comments.

"But I am a people person," said Mr. Neall, noting that executives in other counties laid off workers during the recession and he did not. "If I were Ted, I'd start concentrating on 1994."

Mr. Sophocleus, who was appointed to a vacancy in the state House of Delegates last year, shrugs off their criticism. He's not running against Mr. Neall, he said, but he would have handled the last four years, and will handle the next four years, differently than Mr. Neall did.

"The next county executive is going to have to make tough decisions but still watch out for the people," said Mr. Sophocleus, who did not enter the race until late June when he was sure Mr. Neall would not. "You have to live within budget constraints, but the government still belongs to the people, not to the executive or the council."

Mr. Sophocleus, a former corporate manager for a national drug store chain, has used the same campaign theme -- "Bringing government closer to people" -- since he first ran for council in 1982. He has stressed that theme above all else at campaign functions this year and to win the endorsements of county employee groups such as the teachers union and environmental groups.

That philosophy also has won him the support of most North County Democratic officials and at least one former GOP official. Robert Pascal, the governor's appointment secretary and a former county executive, compared Mr. Sophocleus' ability to show compassion with that of his boss, William Donald Schaefer. That compassion will be particularly important as the 2-year-old cap on the county's property tax revenues limits its ability to keep pace with inflation.

"When budgets are tight, the county executive needs compassion more than at any other time," said Mr. Pascal, who met Mr. Sophocleus 25 years ago while both coached youth football.

Mr. Sophocleus' emphasis on the "human factor," however, has drawn criticism from opponents who say he is using it to gloss over the details of the office.

"Ted's theme is 'I'm a warm, nice, friendly person, so please vote for me,' " said Democratic rival Robert Agee. "It's a good strategy . . . but I'm not sure that really constitutes leadership."

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