A Matter of Money: Who Do You Trust?

COMMENT

October 02, 1994|By ELISE ARMACOST

Del. John Gary, the Republican candidate for Anne Arundel County executive, has started defining this campaign as a test of "who you trust more with your money."

Del. Ted Sophocleus, his Democratic opponent, has stopped talking so much about being a "people person" and begun touting his managerial abilities.

Education, crime and solid waste disposal are important. But the candidates clearly want to make this race a referendum on who is more capable of running the business of county government.

"There's no question the public believes either of us can run the county," Mr. Gary said at a West County Chamber of Commerce debate last week. "The question is, how would we run the county?"

Mr. Sophocleus pushed the same message. "This is an election based on management skills and management abilities," he said. "Who can best deal with the financial constraints being put upon us?"

Who, indeed? The answer is harder for voters to discern than either Mr. Gary or Mr. Sophocleus would have them believe. That's because we don't know very much about them as business managers, administrators or corporate leaders. And they aren't providing much information to go by.

Mr. Gary asks us to believe in him based on his fiscally conservative voting record in the legislature, a record he contrasts to Mr. Sophocleus' record as a county councilman during the free-spending Lighthizer years. In fact, he has taken to referring to that era as the "Lighthizer-Sophocleus administration," a label which probably gives Mr. Sophocleus credit for more influence than he deserves.

That Mr. Gary's fiscal philosophies are more frugal than his opponent's should count for something among voters who believe the next executive should treat tax dollars as a precious commodity. Still, an ideology is not proof of managerial skill. Neither is a conservative voting record.

A voting record does not reveal if a candidate knows which programs can be cut and which must be kept. It doesn't reveal whether he knows how to pick apart a budget and find places to save money.

On paper, County Executive Robert Neall's credentials during his 1990 campaign were not all that different from what Mr. Gary's are now. Both were small businessmen; Mr. Neall ran a grocery. Mr. Gary owned a successful drapery business and ventured, with less success, into home construction. Both served on the House Appropriations Committee. Both are fiscal conservatives.

But Mr. Neall entered the executive race with an asset Mr. Gary lacks: a proven reputation for being able to craft budget reform, for being able to dissect a labyrinthine spending plan, find savings no one else knew existed, then put the whole thing back together. He campaigned on this reputation, and not only did he win, but voters defeated the tax cap that year based on their trust in him to manage their money.

Mr. Gary is an intelligent man. His government experience is broader than Mr. Sophocleus', his knowledge of financial issues impressive. But as one leading Democrat noted, "he is no Bob Neall" when it comes to a record of budget-crunching.

Perhaps his private sector employment history (Mr. Gary ran an interior design firm in Baltimore before starting his drapery business) includes evidence of his prowess as a manager. But, if so, he hasn't said much about it.

Mr. Sophocleus has been even quieter about his business experience, which is strange considering that he claims a fairly extensive background as a manager of various drug store chains.

In addition to 10 years as owner and manager of Ted's Pharmacy in Linthicum, which he sold to run for county executive in 1990, Mr. Sophocleus' resume says he was president of Discount Pharmacy Corp. in Corpus Christi, Texas from 1977 to 1980, where he "restructured and fine-tuned the entire operation, completely reversing a historic pattern of losses to produce a significantly profitable company."

From 1960 to 1977, his resume says, he worked his way up to Director of Management, Development and Professional Services for Read's Drug Stores. He says he handled everything from hiring to development of new purchasing and inventory systems which saved Read's more than $4 million annually.

These alleged accomplishments are the kinds of managerial skills you'd expect an executive candidate to be shouting from the hilltops. Instead, Mr. Sophocleus is invariably vague on the stump about his business background.

At the West County debate, for example, he said this is an election about who is the best manager. But this was the sole shred of information he offered about his own expertise in that regard: "Successful major business, corner drug stores. You name it, we've been there."

Why? Why doesn't Mr. Sophocleus capitalize on his management experience, if it is as solid as he claims?

In the end, it may not matter if Mr. Gary and Mr. Sophocleus are not managerial wizards if they are willing and able to choose smart, experienced staff and advisers.

While no one should expect to see Mr. Neall working in a Gary administration, there's little doubt where Mr. Gary will turn for budget advice. To whom does Mr. Sophocleus turn? That, like the question of which of these candidates is the better manager, remains unclear.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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