No-frills candidate prefers blunt style CAMPAIGN 1994

September 08, 1994|By Pat Gilbert | Pat Gilbert,Sun Staff Writer

The solitary figure prowling Oregon Avenue with an armful of brochures drew honks from motorists and caused pedestrians to dart across the street to shake his hand. People stopped their mowing or gardening, mopped their brows and hurried to greet him.

This is lion country. Halethorpe-Arbutus. The political turf of John Carroll Coolahan, the Lion of Halethorpe.

So dubbed 20 years ago for his tenacity, Mr. Coolahan is stalking the Democratic nomination for Baltimore County executive in Tuesday's primary. His main opposition comes from Councilmen Charles A. Dutch Ruppersberger III of Cockeysville and Melvin G. Mintz of Pikesville. Kevin Pearl of Woodlawn, a follower of Lyndon LaRouche, also is running.

In Southwest Baltimore County, which Mr. Coolahan represented the legislature for most of the last 27 years, he doesn't have to hunt far to find supporters.

"You don't have to waste this on me," said Joe Saurusaitis, handing back a political handbill to Mr. Coolahan. "You got my vote, you've always had my vote."

Glancing at his voters list, an appreciative Mr. Coolahan moves on to the next house. He is doing what is called in political circles a "lit drop," leaving campaign literature at the homes of those who voted in the past two Democratic primaries.

Normally, a lit drop is handled by volunteers and paid campaign staff people. But for the first time in many elections going back to 1966, Mr. Coolahan is doing most of his own campaign work.

His campaign has been marked by limited organization, limited money and limited exposure.

It also has been marked by an unusually straightforward, sometimes blunt approach to the voters.

"If you don't agree with my position, don't vote for me," he says often.

For instance, during interviews with a black ministers coalition last week, Democratic executive candidates were told that the black community expects more of a role in county government.

Mr. Coolahan responded that coalition leaders first should get blacks more involved in the county political process and that would lead to the political influence they sought.

Speaking to a predominantly Jewish audience in June, he was asked about the approval of $500,000 in taxpayer money to transform the old Pikes Theatre on Reisterstown Road into a performing arts center, a popular project in Pikesville. He didn't hesitate, saying he did not support use of public money for such "private perks."

This direct approach is nothing new for Mr. Coolahan. He has used it from the time he entered the House of Delegates in 1967, when he served in the state Senate from 1971 to 1979, in his losing campaign for executive in 1978, his next two-term stint in the Senate and his five years as a District Court Judge.

In the legislature, Mr. Coolahan was the prime mover in re-instituting capital punishment and in changing countywide election of council members to the current district method.

The Lion didn't enter this year's executive campaign until May, after retiring from the bench. Although Mr. Coolahan had about five years left on his District Court term, he said he stepped down because he promised himself years ago that if financially able, he would retire at 62. He will turn 62 in October.

However, immediately after the retirement was official, he announced his candidacy for executive.

From the beginning, he had to battle suggestions that he got into the race to neutralize state Sen. Nancy L. Murphy of Catonsville, the first candidate to declare. His lack of money and campaign organization led some to think he wasn't a serious candidate.

Mrs. Murphy, who succeeded Mr. Coolahan in the Senate when he was named to the District Court in 1989, dropped out of the executive race in early July, citing a lack of financial support, and is running for re-election to the Senate.

"If I was just in this race to cut into her support, I had plenty of time to get out before the withdrawal deadline," said Mr. Coolahan.

Political toll

But the Lion of Halethorpe stayed.

Being out of politics for five years has taken a political toll, he said.

"I had hoped some of my old colleagues in the legislature would stand by me in this campaign, but they haven't," he said. "Maybe if I was still in the Senate, that might not be the case."

Running against a younger breed of politicians like Mr. Ruppersberger and Mr. Mintz, both 48, Mr. Coolahan has been called a political dinosaur. He disagrees.

"I'm not stuck in time," he said. "I've kept up on the issues. My pragmatic, conservative approach is just as relevant and appealing today as it was 20 years ago."

Following a theme from his legislative days, Mr. Coolahan speaks against what he considers unwise use of taxpayer dollars. His Pikes Theatre statement is one example of that philosophy. "The county needs some one to say no to special interest groups," he said.

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