Sheriff Pepersack courts conservative Democrats

October 13, 1994|By Dennis O'Brien

When Sheriff Robert G. Pepersack Sr. assesses his chances in the November election, he takes on the tone of a football coach trying to rally his team.

The Republican incumbent barely survived a primary challenge from a little-known and poorly financed challenger, John E. xTC Moran IV, a 30-year-old former deputy suing the sheriff's office over his dismissal.

"That one is over. It's like the game we played last week. We have to move on to the next one," Sheriff Pepersack said.

Mr. Moran got 11,024 votes to the sheriff's 12,156. Mr. Moran has since thrown his support to the sheriff's opponent, county police Sgt. George F. Johnson IV.

Critics of the sheriff say many of the ballots cast for Mr. Moran were actually anti-Pepersack votes.

But Sheriff Pepersack says he just became too complacent.

"We sort of sat back and took it easy. But we're not going to do that this time. Every election's a new one and you have to go out and get your name recognition up."

The retired state police sergeant says he is optimistic he will win the support of the county's "conservative Democrats," who he says voted for his Democratic opponent in September only because they cannot vote for a Republican on the primary ballot.

"I think I'll gather quite a few crossover votes, particularly since we have a lot of very conservative Democrats in the county," he said.

But the sheriff faces a challenger in November with considerably more political punch than Mr. Moran.

Sergeant Johnson, a 22-year veteran of the county Police Department, has the financial resources to match the incumbent and the support of the county's Democratic organization.

Campaign finance reports filed Sept. 2 show Sergeant Johnson raised $35,644, compared to the sheriff's $42,898. Mr. Moran had $3,437.

Sergeant Johnson's father, George F. Johnson III, was chairman of the county's Democratic Central Committee.

The 41-year-old candidate also has worked as a volunteer in Democratic campaigns and has solid relationships with the county's Democratic leadership, including county executive candidate Theodore J. Sophocleus and state Sens. Michael J. Wagner and Philip C. Jimeno.

Sergeant Johnson also got 25,784 votes running unopposed as a Democratic challenger in the September primary.

Moreover, even the sheriff's supporters see him as a vulnerable target because of political missteps since taking office in 1990.

"He's made dramatic strides in that office, but his problem is he's not a political animal in terms of what he says," said Timothy Murnane, a Republican supporter and lawyer who lost a 1990 bid for state's attorney.

The sheriff manages a $2 million budget and a staff of 42 full-time and 39 part-time employees.

Sergeant Johnson, who is commander of the department's robbery unit and supervises the hostage negotiation team, said he decided to run for sheriff because it is a good time for him to retire and because of problems he has with the sheriff's performance.

He could hold the sheriff's job, which pays $42,000 annually, and collect a Police Department pension that pays officers 50 percent of their salary after 20 years.

He said the sheriff has hurt morale among the deputies, who provide courthouse security, transport prisoners from jail, and serve warrants and other court papers.

"He's ruling by intimidation over there," Sergeant Johnson said.

Sergeant Johnson criticized the sheriff on three fronts: use of deputies for chores outside their assigned duties, budget battles with the county and his request for a 50 percent pay raise.

The sheriff should not have sent deputies to direct traffic at a July 4 fund-raiser for U.S. Senate candidate Bill Brock, he said.

"You will not see that in my administration," Sergeant Johnson said.

He also should not have such bitter battles with the County Council and executive over his budget, he said.

In his first two years in office, the sheriff feuded with the county executive and County Council over his budget, prompting the executive, fellow Republican Robert R. Neall to say that he was "sorely disappointed" with the sheriff's ability to manage public money.

But what Sergeant Johnson is emphasizing most in his campaign is the sheriff's request for a pay raise. His campaign slogan "For the People, Not For the Money" is a direct reference to the 50 percent pay raise the sheriff requested in January.

The Democratic challenger also brings it up just about every chance he gets.

"The biggest kick in the pants was his reference that his $42,000 salary was 'poverty wages.' Think of all the working people in this county who would love to have that salary," Sergeant Johnson said.

Sheriff Pepersack said he only asked for the additional money to raise the public's perception of the office and elevate it to the same level of prestige as other county offices. The county executive earns $78,000. The state's attorney earns $88,999.

"If it had been approved, he [Sergeant Johnson] sure wouldn't have turned it down, would he?" the sheriff asked.

He admits that he should have reimbursed the county for sending a deputy to Mr. Brock's fund-raiser.

Sheriff Pepersack said his budget disputes with county officials were prompted by his desire to improve the department and reverse "28 years" of inadequate budgets under Sheriff William Huggins.

He also said his battles with county officials have been based on a difference in philosophies between what state law dictates for the sheriff's office and county officials' perception that the sheriff's office is just another county agency.

County officials have fought with him -- and tried to control him -- by using their budgetary authority, he said.

"If the county can take the sheriff and deny him adequate funding, he will fail, and I've done everything in my power to prevent that," he said.

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