Gary has the headaches, and he loves every one

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November 19, 1995|By Elise Armacost

ANNE ARUNDEL'S five current and past executives gathered in Annapolis recently to celebrate 30 years of charter government. Only one of them, however, looked as though he felt like celebrating.

Ironic that that one should be John Gary. He's the one sitting in the Arundel Center now. He's the one with all the headaches. Yet he's happy as a clam, comfortable in his own skin, loving every minute of being a big fish in Maryland's political waters.

"If God had thought up a job description for me, this would be the job," he gushed last week. "I am in heaven."

As for those other four well, they seem to be inhabiting some less exalted realm these days.

The black-tie, by-invitation-only celebration, held at Loews Annapolis Hotel Nov. 7, was supposed to have combined the humor of a roast with the accolades of a tribute. Those who attended agreed it fell short on both counts. With the exception of Robert Pascal, who seemed comfortable enough, the former executives were not in the mood for ribald comments, stupid jokes and digs about their shortcomings. Even overt praise fell flat.

Charter's 'father'

There was Joe Alton (1964-1974), notably subdued as his friends heralded him as the "father of county government." Gracious as always, he seemed uncomfortable with this title. He did, after all, go to jail for taking kickbacks during his years in office. He contributed much to charter government, but he tainted it, too. The glossy booklet passed out with dinner made no mention of his fall from grace, nor did the speakers who roasted him. But how could he not think of it, or pretend that no one else remembered?

There was O. James Lighthizer (1982-1990), who improved the county's credit rating twice, built multi-million dollar parks, modernized the sewerage system and left office feeling like a king -- only to watch his administration become a synonym for 1980s excess. The audience barely repressed a snicker when Speaker of the House Casper R. Taylor Jr. cluelessly asked who built Quiet Waters, that beautiful park he enjoys so much during the long winter legislature, but which has become a symbol of VTC Lighthizer grandiosity.

Mr. Lighthizer raised his hand eagerly, like a little kid desperate for credit.

"I never had a job I enjoyed more, and never will have a job I enjoy more" than being county executive, he said, sounding wistful and a little sad.

Then there was Bob Neall (1990-1994), who sounded as if he never had a job he enjoyed less. His reputation as a fearless budget-cutter made him a top candidate for governor not so long ago, and he left county office as the most popular executive in charter history. And yet, four years of being painted as a heartless Scrooge by unions and other groups that couldn't stand him clearly have taken a toll. Being executive "was a privilege," Mr. Neall said. "I daresay it wasn't often a pleasure."

Elvis on his head

No, there wasn't much lightness or laughter at this roast -- except when the spotlight turned to Mr. Gary. The man whom some wrote off as a not-to-be-taken-seriously ultraconservative during his 12 years in the General Assembly stole the show.

He good-naturedly blamed all his problems on his predecessors. The only genuinely funny lines of the evening were all about him and his incredible hair. "I've got news for you, John," Mr. Gary's campaign manager, George Shenk, said. "Elvis is dead, but he's reappeared on your head."

John Gary laughed. He's laughing a lot these days. His first year in office has gone better than he ever imagined, he says, sounding disgustingly cheery about it all. "I get up in the morning, my feet hit the ground and I say, 'Come on world, what are you going to bring on today?' "

In fact, the world has brought on more pleasant circumstances for Mr. Gary in his first year than it did for his predecessor, a fact of which he is well aware. The dirty work of cutting spending was basically done by the time Mr. Neall left. So Mr. Gary has enjoyed a quiet year marred by no crises and marked by some modest accomplishments. His first budget contained the second smallest increase in growth in charter history. He brokered a truce between paid and volunteer firefighters. He lived up to his campaign promise to reform the county pension system.

'Deal with human issues'

"I know where I want to take this county," Mr. Gary says. "I want it to look like the government Bob Neall left me, only I want to be able to say I used the reasonable amount of growth in the budget to deal with human issues" -- a rehabilitation center for troubled kids, an ice rink for Glen Burnie, ballparks for South County.

Why, he can hardly wait to finish his lunch and get back to it, this job that couldn't suit him better if God himself had designed it.

Will he still feel that way a year from now, or two, or 10?

God only knows.

Elise Armacost is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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