Executive hopefuls tout contrasting experience

October 30, 1994|By John A. Morris | John A. Morris,Sun Staff Writer

On Nov. 8, Anne Arundel voters will decide the winner of the county executive race in a classic showdown between the power and glamour of a state lawmaker and the common, workaday record of a county councilman.

History favors the State House. In the 30 years since the county adopted home rule, voters always have chosen Anne Arundel's top executive from the General Assembly, bypassing council members more intimate with the details of local government.

Although this year's county executive candidates -- Democrat Theodore J. Sophocleus and Republican John G. Gary -- are both state delegates, the Democrat is better known for the eight years he represented Linthicum on the council. Mr. Sophocleus, 55, was appointed to fill a vacancy in the House of Delegates last year.

Mr. Gary, 50, has served 12 years in the legislature, including eight on the Appropriations Committee, which has a direct hand in determining the state's spending priorities.

Each candidate tries to sell his experience as the best for the job. Mr. Sophocleus touts his knowledge of county services, and Mr. Gary stresses the lessons he learned working with government finances.

County services, which range from public education to trash disposal and police protection, often affect residents more immediately and directly than those provided by the state, Mr. Sophocleus said. As a result, he said, county government requires a different management style and set of skills.

"John's going to have to get on a learning curve," Mr. Sophocleus said. "I can start working out of the 'in' basket immediately."

Mr. Gary disagrees. "Twelve years in the legislature is like earning a Ph.D. in government, for God's sake," he said.

Who are these two men who want the highest prize in county politics?

The son of Greek immigrants, Ted Sophocleus grew up in Baltimore, graduated from the University of Maryland, became a pharmacist and moved to Linthicum. There, he volunteered to coach youth league football -- a decision that laid the groundwork for his political career.

Mr. Gary, the son of a Navy chief warrant officer, grew up in Pasadena, graduated from Glen Burnie High School and, after a brief flirtation with college, joined a Baltimore interior design firm as a management trainee -- a job that whetted his appetite for politics.

"A lot of the movers and shakers in the state I met through the drapery business," said Mr. Gary, who supervised 20 employees in the drapery workshop at the H. Chambers Co.

On a job, installing new drapes at the Governor's Mansion in Annapolis, Mr. Gary met Spiro T. Agnew, then governor and later vice president.

"I got to the point where I was having breakfast twice a week with the governor," said Mr. Gary. When Richard M. Nixon picked the governor as his running mate, "I was in hog heaven. Here I was a young man, and I knew the man who was going to be vice president.

"Of course, I was crushed when he fell. That rattled me. I didn't know if I wanted to continue in politics after that."

Mr. Gary, who initially settled in Havenwood, got his first taste of local politics lobbying the county to pave roads and install street lights in the neighborhood. He campaigned for Jack Steffi for state Senate in 1966 and Charles McC. Mathias for the U.S. Senate in 1968.

By 1970, Mr. Gary had developed a reputation as a skilled political organizer who could bring young people and Democrats to GOP campaigns, recalled Walter Sexton, who managed state Sen. John A. Cade's campaign for county executive that year. It was a highly valued talent in a county where the Democrats outnumbered the Republicans 4-to-1.

All three Republican candidates in 1970 -- including incumbent Joseph Alton and Senator Steffi -- wooed Mr. Gary, then 27, for his support, Mr. Sexton said. The young man eventually joined Mr. Cade's losing effort, forging a political alliance that would help carry him into public office 12 years later.

After Mr. Gray lost a run for the County Council in 1978 (then a countywide seat), Mr. Cade put him on the county liquor board. That same year he also became president of WATCH, a parental group concerned about the moral values taught in public schools. That forged another alliance that would help define his legislative career.

Dennis Younger, director of curriculum for the county schools, said WATCH challenged a ninth-grade civics textbook called "Street Law" because it opened with a "classic case about a group of survivors in life raft who resorted to cannibalism." The challenge was turned back.

Mr. Gary, who was elected to the House in 1982, eventually distanced himself from the group. Still, "that electorate certainly looked to him as their spokesman in the legislature," Mr. Younger said.

During his 12 years in office, Mr. Gary has focused as much on education as on fiscal matters. He pushed the state Board of Education into easing restrictions on home schooling and, in 1988, unsuccessfully sought to give the county executive control over the county Board of Education.

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