'89 pension vote, Neall's support seen as factors Republican Gary defeats Sophocleus "I only hope they understand what they have done,' Democrat says of voters ELECTION 1994

November 09, 1994|By John A. Morris | John A. Morris,Sun Staff Writer

Republican John G. Gary won the race for county executive yesterday, defeating Democrat Theodore J. Sophocleus in the battle to succeed fellow Republican Robert R. Neall.

Mr. Gary finished with 53 percent of the vote and Mr. Sophocleus with 47 percent.

"Elections are thrilling, and it is certainly nice to be on the winning side," Mr. Gary, a state delegate, told supporters at the Annapolis Holiday Inn about 10 p.m. "Now the job of governing begins."

Mr. Sophocleus, who narrowly lost to Mr. Neall in 1990, conceded defeat about 9:20 p.m. at his campaign headquarters in Glen Burnie. Thanking his volunteers for their effort, Mr. Sophocleus struggled to explain the loss.

Later, surrounded by his family at Michael's Eighth Avenue, a tearful Mr. Sophocleus said, "The voters have spoken. I only hope they understand what they have done."

During the past week, Mr. Sophocleus, a Linthicum pharmacist, appeared to have a small lead on Mr. Gary, who operates a custom drapery and consulting business in Millersville. Polls had showed the Democrat holding an advantage of 4 to 7 percentage points.

But Mr. Gary hit Mr. Sophocleus hard during the final two weeks in a series of direct mailings, attacking him for supporting the O. James Lighthizer administration during his eight years on the County Council and voting in 1989 to lower the retirement age for elected and appointed officials from 60 to 50. Mr. Sophocleus, 55, and his wife received about $900 a month in retirement benefits as a result of the change.

Steve Thomas, Mr. Sophocleus' campaign manager, acknowledged the signs of defeat about 9 p.m. after the Democrat failed to win convincingly in many North County precincts and traditional party strongholds. He said Mr. Sophocleus failed to respond to Mr. Gary's negative campaign early enough or strongly enough.

"I don't think we did a good enough job of identifying our opponent for what he is," Mr. Thomas said. "He had two failed businesses and went to a Moonie convention. But Ted didn't want to do that. He didn't want to get into it."

Mr. Gary attended an all-expense paid conference for conservative lawmakers in Miami in 1988 that was financed in part by the Unification Church led by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

Yesterday, voters leaving polling places across the county cited Mr. Sophocleus' 1989 pension vote and Mr. Neall's support for Mr. Gary as deciding factors.

"Bob Neall endorsed him, and I'm fairly happy with Bob," said Jim Veach of Rose Haven.

"The pension issue was very big in my mind. That's the deciding factor," said John L. Richardson of Severn.

Consuelo Howe of Odenton said she voted for Mr. Gary for the same reason she voted for Ellen R. Sauerbrey as governor -- to control taxes and reduce the involvement of government in citizens' lives.

Much of the seven-week race had focused on which candidate's background best qualified him to manage the government under a 2-year-old, voter-imposed limit on the county's property tax. The county spends $711 million annually on schools, police, firefighters, trash disposal, building and other services.

Mr. Sophocleus had the support of environmentalists, teachers and county employee unions. He depicted himself as conservative but with greater compassion for the plight of others than Mr. Gary. In recent weeks, he assailed Mr. Gary for his two failed contracting businesses.

Mr. Gary painted himself as the only one who could make difficult budget decisions, noting that the Democrat had the support of the unions and other special interest groups.

Mr. Neall, who defeated Mr. Sophocleus by 3,000 votes in 1990, has spent four years creating what he describes as "plain vanilla" government. He has cut programs, reorganized some services and spun others off to the private sector.

Last night, Mr. Gary promised to follow in Mr. Neall's footsteps.

"I've never had a better political friend than Bob Neall, and you've never had a better county executive than he was," said Mr. Gary, 51, who will take an oath of office in December.

Mr. Gary said his first tasks will be to build a second county Detention Center on Ordnance Road in Glen Burnie and to ask state lawmakers to make him responsible for the county's public schools by allowing him to directly appoint the school board. The board is now appointed by the governor with recommendations from a citizen-based nominating convention.

The Anne Arundel County League of Women Voters is beginning a campaign to create an elected school board.

Responding to voters' concerns about crime, Mr. Gary has promised to hire at least 20 police officers a year to beef up the county's 550-officer force. Mr. Gary also said he would lobby the state legislature to pass tougher prison sentences for repeat offenders and to allow voters to recall lenient judges and parole board members.

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