The power to provoke Outsiders: Political gadflies, who relish their position outside the establishment, stir up trouble for those in it.

November 20, 1995|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

They are the noisy minority, the squeaky wheels of local democracy.

A. Robert Kaufman, a Baltimore human rights activist and perennial candidate, once wore a Pinocchio nose to a City Council meeting.

Monroe Haines, an environmentalist, dogged Carroll County officials for nine years to clean up a stream, then protested to President Clinton when they got a federal grant to do it.

They are gadflies, a familiar part of the political scene, who tend to win few friends among the local politicians who tangle with them daily.

"A citizen activist tries to solve problems," complains Annapolis City Councilwoman Ellen O. Moyer. "A gadfly kicks off loud, boisterous invective for political sport. It's the fun of being negative that turns them on. It's the power surge you get from being ill-mannered."

An unusual approach may be the only way those outside the establishment can have an effect, says James Gimpel, assistant professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland at College Park.

Unpopular outsiders must "draw sufficient attention to themselves" because they don't have a wide base of support, he says.

So, gadflies take on the time-honored role of stinging the establishment, much as their insect counterparts bite and annoy livestock.

Just ask any merchant along a quarter-mile stretch of John Street in Westminster who has had a run-in with citizen-activist Mr. Haines in the past eight years.

In that time, the 73-year-old environmentalist has made it his mission to spy on merchants in that industrialized section of the city and report suspected polluters to the state.

"He sits out there for hours -- in the rain, in the snow -- with binoculars, video camera and picture camera," says William F. McClelland, owner of B & D Truck Hoist Inc.

And Mr. McClelland is not even Mr. Haines' chief target.

That dubious honor belongs to Gary Johnson, owner of Gary's Radiator Shop. In the past three years, Mr. Haines has called investigators to Mr. Johnson's shop "40 or 50 times," but they have yet to find violations, says Quentin Banks, a spokesman with the state Department of the Environment.

In Mr. Johnson's view, that's harassment.

He went to court to keep Mr. Haines from spying on him.

Mr. Haines now does his surveillance from an elementary school across the street.

Previously, he would "be on his hands and knees [outside the front door of the radiator shop] picking up rain water" in vials, Mr. Johnson says.

Mr. Haines acknowledges spying on local merchants -- and vows to "keep watching day and night because [environmental officials] aren't doing it."

The John Street merchants agree with Mr. Haines's goal. "He's done just a great job cleaning up the stream," Mr. Johnson acknowledges.

Some local politicians say gadflies take up an inordinate share of the public-policy debate -- and their time.

"There are 700,000 plus people in Baltimore County, but we knew [the gadflies] all on a first-name basis -- all the same people," says former county Councilman Ronald B. Hickernell. "They are not conducive to the democratic process."

Extreme devotion

Their devotion can border on the obsession.

For years, George W. Murphy made opposition to development in Baltimore County his mission, testifying for anyone who requested his presence at a public hearing.

"If you live in a community and you love it and you watch it erode through zoning, it's as heart pounding as watching your house burn," Mr. Murphy, 46, says.

The long hours at night meetings cost him, he says: He and his first wife divorced and, for a time, he faced losing his house by foreclosure.

Mr. Murphy was driven by the desire to conserve distinct neighborhoods. But, in the view of some local officials, his manner left much to be desired.

'Obnoxious and militant'

"He had very good objectives, but I saw him as obnoxious and militant -- one of the most obnoxious people I had to deal with in 12 years," Mr. Hickernell says.

In Annapolis, historic preservationist Jim Vance has been known to prompt a similar reaction.

He has made it his mission to oppose a 2 a.m. closing time for some downtown restaurants.

Mr. Vance, 52, says he's just trying to keep his city from becoming a place "where thousands of bored young people living in the suburbs [will] come to party."

But his lobbying methods are another thing, says Ms. Moyer, who favors the 2 a.m. closing.

"I get screamed at with some abusive comment when I encounter Mr. Vance on Main Street," she complains. "He seems to delight in planned confrontation."

Happy on the fringe

Indeed, many gadflies say they relish the role of outsider.

In Baltimore, Mr. Kaufman, a self-described socialist now in his fifth decade of jousting with Baltimore officials, has been involved in civil rights, anti-war, women's rights and gay rights activities.

"Politically speaking, I'm as black or gay or female as anybody," says Mr. Kaufman, who made an unsuccessful bid this year for the Democratic nomination for a seat on the Baltimore City Council.

Price to pay

Yet there's a cost, Mr. Kaufman acknowledges.

"My father disinherited me, my friends abandoned me. The kind of love I was denied -- it hurts a lot," he says.

"A lot of women are not trained to live with a man on the edge of poverty."

Despite such costs, gadflies carry on. Mr. Murphy, the Baltimore County gadfly, has moved to Carroll County and can hardly wait to get involved.

"The fact that I think so differently is why I had such impact," he says. "I was perplexing to the community, terrifying to politicians."

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