Dundalk embraces resurrected Arnick

November 13, 1994|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,Sun Staff Writer

In the Dunkin' Donuts where the Duke of Dundalk meets his courtiers, the coffee was fresh, the newspaper was spread out before him, and once again, all was right with his world.

"People really know me because I do things like go to the Dunkin' Donuts every morning," said Democratic Del. John S. Arnick. "I meet a teacher, a cop, a construction worker, a doctor. We talk and, if I can, I help them. Around here, actions speak louder than words."

Mr. Arnick, who was forced to withdraw as a nominee for a judgeship last year amid allegations that he made vulgar and sexist comments about women, was officially resurrected Tuesday by voters in Baltimore County's 7th Legislative District.

His comeback had already begun in Annapolis, where the speaker of the House last month appointed him to the powerful Legislative Policy Committee. More could be in store. The same election that brought Mr. Arnick victory saw the defeat of House Majority Leader Kenneth H. Masters, a Catonsville Democrat. That leaves the leadership position vacant and Mr. Arnick as Baltimore County's most seasoned delegate.

"After everything cools down, I want to talk with the speaker about the job," Mr. Arnick said. "I held the position before, and I didn't get any complaints."

Depending on one's point of view, Mr. Arnick's public resuscitation -- the latest episode in a roller-coaster political career -- is either wonderful or bizarre.

In Annapolis, he developed a reputation as as a crafty legislator, a quick wit and behind-the-scenes problem-solver given to custom-tailored suits and fancy cars -- he recently turned in his racy Jaguar for a new Cadillac.

But those who know him also say he can take on a cruder, harder edge in social settings, especially after a few drinks.

In 1993, when he was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, he received a long-desired appointment to the District Court bench. He resigned from the legislature, gave up his law practice and began hearing cases.

But a Senate confirmation that was expected to be a formality turned into a slugfest amid allegations that he had made vulgar and sexist comments about women during a dinner meeting with two female lobbyists a year earlier.

Coming in the wake of the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas sexual harassment controversy and allegations of sexual misconduct against Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood, the accusations created a public uproar. Mr. Arnick apologized for the remarks, but after a bitter 10-day fight, he gave up and withdrew from the nomination.

He was left without his seat and without a law practice, but got another shot at the political game when the man named to replace him, Edward G. Nipper Schafer, died in September 1993.

The county Democratic Party then chose the 60-year-old Mr. Arnick to fill out his own term. Running this year, he led the field in the Democratic primary -- the real election in Dundalk. On Tuesday, he came in third, but it was enough for him to get his old seat back as one of three delegates from the district.

Many Dundalk residents still feel the charges leveled against Mr. Arnick should have been viewed with a more skeptical eye.

"These women blew things out of proportion," said Dolores Gregory, a secretary at the Bethlehem Steel Corp. plant who has known Mr. Arnick for three decades. "We need him in Annapolis, he knows his stuff."

"I have no need for feminists," said Barbara Blackburn, a legal secretary who grew up in Dundalk. "John Arnick has always been there for people with problems. And these women who made these charges tried to ruin his reputation."

This view does not sit well in some quarters, especially among those who brought the charges.

"That was then, and this is now," said Judith Hanford of Lutherville, who testified that Mr. Arnick made sexual advances to her at a 1990 Christmas party. "His comeback reminds me a lot of Jason in 'Friday the 13th' . . . he's baaaack!"

Judith A. Wolfer, the former lobbyist for the House of Ruth shelter for women whose charges ignited the explosion, was more diplomatic.

"The people of Dundalk are entitled to choose whatever elected representative they want," Ms. Wolfer, now an attorney in Takoma Park, said. "If that's who they want to represent them, then that's that."

Mary Jo Neville, a member of the Baltimore County Democratic Central Committee, was one of two women on the panel who voted against Mr. Arnick's nomination to replace Mr. Schafer.

"I was not disputing his legislative ability," she said. "I was motivated by actions he took dealing with women. I voted my conscience. But a lot of people in his district thought he got a raw deal, and they reacted to that. It bothers me, but that's a decision for the people in Dundalk."

Indeed, to understand Mr. Arnick's revived political career, one must understand the cultural subtleties of the community that is Dundalk, a sprawling village of more than 60,000 residents in the southeastern corner of the county.

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