Vote looms just as campaigns were getting hot CAMPAIGN 1994

September 12, 1994|By John A. Morris and John Rivera | John A. Morris and John Rivera,Sun Staff Writers

The Democratic primary campaign for county executive will come to a close tomorrow just as the candidates' campaigns are getting off the ground.

Only in the last two weeks has the campaign taken shape with candidates firing off position papers, trading barbs and making regular public appearances.

For nearly a year, Democratic leaders pushed and prodded for someone, anyone, to step forward and take up the party's banner. Other than Larry E. Walker, a political novice, no one did until June -- long after a typical campaign begins.

The problem was the Republican incumbent. Although Robert R. Neall announced his political retirement in November, few Democrats believed he was ready to give up politics. After all, only a year ago he wanted to be governor.

Because Mr. Neall would be an instant favorite for re-election, would-be candidates dallied almost until the July 5 filing deadline before entering the race. By then it was mid-summer, a traditional lull in political campaigns.

"It's been an unusual campaign," said Democratic candidate Robert Agee. "It's been hard to get people to focus on the race. I don't think it's the people so much. I'd say it's the campaigns that are out of sync."

In addition to Mr. Agee and Mr. Walker, the Democratic candidates include H. Erle Schafer, Theodore J. Sophocleus and Louise Rothchild Beauregard. The winner will face Republican John Gary in the Nov. 8 general election.

Mr. Sophocleus, a state delegate and former county councilman, is widely favored to win. The Linthicum pharmacist won the nomination in 1990 and has the support of elected Democrats in North County and Annapolis. He also has endorsements from the Sierra Club, the teachers union, the AFL-CIO and the Anne Arundel Voters for Environmental Justice, a registered lobbying group representing local environmental and social activists.

He has campaigned on many of the same themes he used four years ago, promising greater involvement by the community and county employees in his administration's decisions. To combat crime, he said he would add 49 officers over two years to the county's 600-officer police force, create police substations in rent-free storefronts and create drug-abuse treatment and suppression programs. He said he would reconsider Mr. Neall's decision to build a $27 million minimum-security jail in Glen Burnie.

Mr. Sophocleus also offered a comprehensive environmental program that would curtail a county policy of granting waivers to the county's adequate facilities ordinance and plant a million trees around the county in four years.

His campaign has to overcome his 1989 vote on the County Council to sweeten his and his wife's county pensions. Mr. Sophocleus, 55, and his wife, who served as his paid aide, began drawing about $900 a month when he left the council in 1990.

The strongest challenge appears to come from Mr. Agee, vice president of Chaney Enterprises, a sand and gravel company based in Southern Maryland. During the 1980s, the Crofton resident was chief aide to former County Executive O. James Lighthizer. He has the support of elected and former elected Democrats in Glen Burnie, Annapolis and West County.

Widely described as a brilliant problem-solver, Mr. Agee has proposed reorganizing county police around substations in neighborhood firehouses. He has downplayed the need to hire significant numbers of new officers. He also supports Mr. Neall's jail proposal.

His environmental package would create forest preserves and make it easier for property owners who give up development rights to receive tax credits. He would make it easier for families to create "granny flats" for elderly relatives.

However, Mr. Agee has had to overcome a large gap in public recognition and often has been linked negatively with the free-wheeling reputation of the Lighthizer years. At the start of the campaign, Mr. Agee said one of his biggest tasks was to prevent the election from becoming a referendum on Mr. Lighthizer.

Mr. Sophocleus also has tried to link Mr. Agee to the 1989 pension vote. Mr. Agee, 46, said he opposed the pension bill within the administration, a claim corroborated by three council members and the chairman of the pension oversight commission.

Mr. Sophocleus and Mr. Lighthizer say they do not remember Mr. Agee's opposition. Mr. Sophocleus notes that as a result of the law, Mr. Agee will become eligible for a pension in four years.

Mr. Schafer, a former clerk of the Circuit Court and former state senator, has made drug and alcohol abuse treatment and public school reforms the centerpiece of his campaign. Noting that 70 percent of the prisoners at the county jail have drug and alcohol addictions, he has suggested the county build a new treatment center in lieu of building a new jail in Glen Burnie.

He also would seek to make the executive directly accountable for education. His proposal is that the executive, rather than a citizen nominating convention and the governor, appoint the school board.

Mr. Walker, a county police corporal from Annapolis, has stressed the need for greater efficiency in government and said only he, with 25 years' experience watching county managers from the inside, can make that happen. He has won the endorsement of the Anne Arundel Taxpayers' Association, the group which successfully backed the property tax cap referendum two years ago.

He has proposed that the county hire 200 additional police officers over the next four years and is the only candidate who supports an elected school board.

The final candidate, Annapolis resident Louise Rothchild Beauregard, has attended political debates but did not mount a campaign.

Mr. Schafer, who has spent 12 of the last 24 years in public office, promised this would be his last campaign.

"If the voters decide I should get on my pony and ride into the sunset, then get on my pony and ride into the sunset I will," Mr. Schafer said. "I said in the spring this was the end of a career, not the beginning."

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