In Howard County, too, it helps to have friends


July 21, 1996|By NORRIS WEST

FORGET qualifications. Degrees and experience mean nothing when competing for political appointments against candidates with friends in high places.

This universal truth was illustrated last week when Gov. Parris N. Glendening consented to appointing Thomas V. Miller III, 29, to a $56,000 a year post on the state Parole Commission. The governor had spoken recently of his improving relationship with Mr. Miller's father, powerful Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.

Friends are important in Howard County, too. Christopher B. Emery, the County Council administrator, owes his job to friendships with local Republicans.

GOP leaders plucked him from a pool of 224 applicants. Possessing an associate's degree at the time -- he's finishing work on his bachelor's -- he was named to a position previously held by a lawyer and holder of a doctorate.

Not that Mr. Emery doesn't bring assets to the job. He was an usher in the White House in the Reagan and Bush administrations and reputedly is a computer whiz.

His technical expertise got him fired by Hillary Clinton, who reportedly questioned his loyalty when he returned a call to Barbara Bush to give computer advice.

In landing the job in Howard County, however, his software acumen wasn't nearly as important as the fact that he can count as friends council Chairman Darrel E. Drown and councilmen Charlie Feaga and Dennis Schrader, Republicans all.

The trio prevailed against opposition from the council's two Democrats to award him the job in February 1995.

"Chris was selected because he is a 'people person' capable of working in a political office in a non-political role," said Mr. Feaga, apparently with a straight face. The western Howard County Republican gained a favorable impression years ago when Mr. Emery dated three of his daughters at different times.

Gray's 'filegate'

Mr. Emery is now in the news because Democratic Councilman C. Vernon Gray charges that he played politics by working for Republicans and against him.

Mr. Gray alleges that Mr. Emery pulled a mini-"filegate" -- breaking the council's honor system by removing fund-raising letters from his files and giving them to Mr. Drown, Mr. Gray's chief rival.

The allegation came after reports surfaced that Mr. Gray used questionable fund-raising tactics in his unsuccessful bid to become second vice president of the National Association of Counties.

Mr. Gray now says he can't trust Mr. Emery to be nonpartisan while serving Democratic and Republican council members, swearing that he will lock the door to his council office.

For the most part, Mr. Emery comes across as a frank and likable, but also hard-driving, political junkie. During an interview in his office, he peppers his conversation with references to books by P. J. O'Rourke, Richard Ben Cramer and Colin Powell.

He denies Mr. Gray's charges and seems confident that a review by police will conclude that the councilman's records were simply misfiled by a clerk. He insisted that he never would divulge files in such a blatantly political way.

Ironically, Mr. Emery may be called to testify before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee because his FBI file was among those improperly obtained by the White House, which has President Clinton in some hot water. Mr. Emery's been on both sides of the double-edged political sword.

He makes no bones about his gratitude to the GOP for his job or about his loyalty to council Republicans. Given this, loyalty should be part of the job description the next time the council advertises for an administrator. That is, if truth matters at all.

Mr. Emery's predecessor, Sheila Tolliver, was hired when the Democrats controlled the County Council. Mr. Feaga couldn't wait for his chance to fire her when Republicans gained control. He had complained that she was too close to Democrats.

Hugh Forton, who served for three years until he was fired, was viewed as not being loyal enough to the then-Democratic leadership. Some observers say he labored too hard trying to please all council members.

"In that kind of position you always have five different opinions of what constitutes loyalty," Mr. Forton says. "They probably should pay whoever is in that job double the salary and designate half of that as combat pay."

He said he often felt like a juggler, trying to keep five balls in the air. A fitting analogy, considering that petty bickering at times makes a circus of the council.

Mr. Emery takes a more realistic, but shamelessly political approach. "All I've got to do is keep three of them happy," he

says. "Any three."

He's wise enough not to delude himself into believing the job is for life. He's learned from his White House days that in a highly charged political atmosphere, the sword cuts both ways.

"Here, I know the day the majority changes, I'm out of here," Mr. Emery said.

Want to replace him? You'd better have some good friends.

Norris West is The Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

Pub Date: 7/21/96

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