Neall's thrifty image coveted CAMPAIGN 1994--ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY EXECUTIVE

October 25, 1994|By John A. Morris | John A. Morris,Sun Staff Writer

The campaign for Anne Arundel County executive is a struggle between two men who want to inherit the mantle of fiscal conservatism from incumbent Robert R. Neall.

The race pits a better-known Democrat who nearly upset Mr. Neall four years ago against what most observers say is a paler shade of the popular Republican.

Democrat Theodore J. Sophocleus, a pharmacist, and Republican John G. Gary, a custom draper, each sells himself as the one to continue the reinvention of government begun under the Neall administration. Mr. Neall, prompted by taxpayer angst and the recession, created what he calls "plain vanilla" government, scaling back county services, reorganizing and eliminating whole departments and shunting some responsibilities onto the private sector.

Mr. Sophocleus and Mr. Neall sounded similar themes in 1990. Mr. Sophocleus, a former two-term county councilman who adopted the teddy bear as his campaign mascot, promised a lean, but warm-and-friendly government. Mr. Neall, a former minority leader of the House of Delegates, warned that government reforms would be painful and hammered away at his opponent as unable to make the necessary decisions.

Again, as in 1990, Mr. Sophocleus and his opponent often echo one another on fundamental issues.

"We need tough management," Mr. Sophocleus told a gathering at Odenton Volunteer Fire Hall last week. "We can't give you everything because we can't afford it."

Moments later, Mr. Gary sounded a similar theme: "Someone has to make tough decisions, the right decisions for the taxpayer. . . . You can't just promise everything to everybody."

Unlike four years ago, Mr. Sophocleus' opponent does not have Mr. Neall's reputation for slicing and dicing government budgets. But after 12 years in the state House of Delegates, including eight on the powerful Appropriations Committee, Mr. Gary is recognized as a fiscal conservative with a good grasp of government spending.

Nor does Mr. Sophocleus face an uphill struggle for voter recognition as he did in 1990. A five-month advertising blitz on cable television, unprecedented in Anne Arundel politics, propelled the Democrat from the near obscurity of his Linthicum district into a dead heat with Mr. Neall by Election Day.

This time, Mr. Sophocleus, who was appointed last year to a vacancy in the House of Delegates, probably is the best-known politician in the county, excepting Mr. Neall.

Mr. Gary has the endorsement of Mr. Neall and the Anne Arundel County Taxpayers Association, the group that sponsored a 1992 referendum that limits the annual growth in the county's property tax revenues. But some observers wonder if Mr. Gary has done enough to distinguish himself from Mr. Sophocleus.

"The quieter and the calmer the campaign, the more it helps Ted," said one Democratic observer. "The more he [Ted] can prevent a clear distinction the better, because he has the name recognition."

Mr. Gary has tried to draw contrasts. He has attempted to link Mr. Sophocleus' eight years on the council with the administration of former executive O. James Lighthizer, which he has described as an era of big government spending.

During a televised debate two weeks ago, the Republican assailed Mr. Sophocleus for accepting extravagant "perks," including a county car and car phone and expense-paid trips to government conferences in Ocean City, while he was a councilman. In newspaper ads, he has criticized the Democrat for approving a 1989 law that allowed 52 appointed and elected officials to retire at age 50 and sweetened their pension benefits. a result of that law, Mr. Sophocleus, 55, and his wife, Alice, who was his council aide, will receive about $900 a month in retirement benefits from the county for the rest of their lives.

Mr. Sophocleus has answered that Anne Arundel needed the pension changes, which county actuaries approved, to prevent department heads from abandoning a lame-duck administration.

Regarding the growing spending of those years, Mr. Sophocleus says the 1980s were a different era and that he has no intention of trying to relive them.

"Yes, we bought things, and yes, we built Quiet Waters Park [an $18 million showplace near Annapolis] and we built schools and upgraded the sewage treatment plants," Mr. Sophocleus told a business group at Anne Arundel Community College recently. "I'm not going to apologize for these things. The money was there and we used it because people wanted these things."

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