The night the sheriff escaped PRIMARY 1994

September 15, 1994|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer John A. Morris contributed to this story.

Sheriff Robert G. Pepersack Sr.'s narrow victory over a little-known and poorly funded challenger in Tuesday's Republican primary has members of both parties wondering if he is in deep political trouble.

Mr. Pepersack beat John E. Moran IV by just 1,036 votes, despite being the incumbent and raising nearly $40,000 more than his opponent. The margin could be less after absentee ballots are counted this afternoon. But they would not give Mr. Moran enough votes to win.

The close race stunned Republican insiders, who remembered that Mr. Pepersack beat Mr. Moran, 30, a Baltimore sheriff's deputy who lives in Pasadena, by nearly 9,000 votes four years ago.

"I couldn't believe those figures last night," County Councilman Carl G. "Dutch" Holland said yesterday afternoon. "Here's a man who got more votes than [County Executive] Bobby Neall got in 1990."

Four years ago, Mr. Pepersack received more than 70,000 votes in his victory over Democrat William R. Huggins, who had held the office for 28 years.

Now, he is facing a formidable opponent in George Johnson IV, head of the county Police Department's robbery unit, who had no opposition in the Democratic primary.

"He's got a tough race," said John Gary, the Republican candidate for county executive. "That was a close primary none of us anticipated."

Democrats could hardly contain their glee.

"I think that cowboy is in trouble," state Sen. Michael J. Wagner of Ferndale said of the outspoken and frequently controversial sheriff.

"If I were Bob Pepersack, I would be putting my resumes out," said Theodore J. Sophocleus, Mr. Gary's Democratic opponent. "He'd better stop standing on the light rail line with his 9mm and get out and take the pulse of the electorate," he added, referring to an Aug. 15 article in U.S. News & World Report in which the sheriff was quoted as saying he is comfortable riding the light rail line only because he's "a law enforcement official with a 9mm pistol."

Even Mr. Pepersack's supporters admit that his "shoot-from-the-lip" style can get him into trouble.

"Bob is a political bull in a china shop," said John Greiber, the Republican candidate for state's attorney. "He has opened his mouth and put his foot in it a lot of the time. Probably more than he would care to admit. But he is a darn good law enforcement officer."

Not surprisingly, analyses of Mr. Pepersack's troubles follow party lines.

Republicans say they feel he has been the victim of bad press, and has suffered the consequences of someone who came into a sheriff's office in disarray and set it in order. They note that he has computerized record-keeping, started a "most-wanted" program to arrest fugitives and introduced an operations manual to a department that never hadone. "Mr. Pepersack is flamboyant. He's a different type of person," said Helen Fister, chairwoman of the Anne Arundel County Republican Central Committee. "I think he's been a good sheriff. He may have bruised some egos and stepped on some toes in, in his words, 'professionalizing the office.' "

But Democrats say Mr. Pepersack's troubles are of his own creation. He has overspent his budget three consecutive years -- by $80,000 in 1991, $125,000 in 1992 and $83,510 last May -- money the sheriff says he needed to effectively run his office.

In January, he asked state lawmakers for a 50 percent raise to bring the sheriff's salary in line with those of other top county officials, a request that was widely ridiculed and ultimately rejected. Later, it was revealed that he had sent a deputy to the state Board of Elections to review campaign finance statements of County Council members. And he assigned deputies to direct traffic at a July 4 fund-raiser for U.S. Senate candidate Bill Brock.

It was these issues that Mr. Moran said persuaded him to run against Mr. Pepersack.

"I think people are unhappy with him and I don't think he has any chance of beating George Johnson," Mr. Moran said. "I think he's an embarrassment to the Republican Party and the only reason he won is I didn't have as much money to campaign as hard."

Mr. Johnson said he will continue to focus on Mr. Pepersack's shortcomings.

"We're going to take advantage of every opportunity to meet the public and make them aware of these issues," he said. "We are interpreting the primary results with Mr. Moran that the voters are unhappy with the job he's doing and they want a change."

Republicans are not convinced that voters want to throw the sheriff out, but they agree that it may be time for some soul searching.

"Perhaps this tight race, which he did not have previously, may send him some signals," said Ms. Fister of the GOP Central Committee. "And he may have to re-evaluate some things before the general election."

Robert C. Schaeffer, president of the Anne Arundel Taxpayers Association, said it's difficult to gauge how much difficulty Mr. Pepersack may be in. His strongest support in 1990 was not among primary voters, who tend to be more politically active, but with the average citizen who votes in the general election.

"So I think the question is, 'How many of these people have changedtheir minds about him since the last election?' " he said.

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