Bartenfelder mixes politics, farming Hybrid career works for councilman

August 21, 1996|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

On the Baltimore County Council sit five lawyers, a computer analyst and a man of the earth -- Joe Bartenfelder.

The 39-year-old Fullerton farmer and Democrat is a throwback to the time when farming and politics were as natural a combination in the county as horses and buggies.

"When you shake hands and take that wonderful farmer's paw -- it's like sandpaper! You know he's a genuine article. That goes a long way," said lawyer and Towson Republican Councilman Douglas B. Riley.

But even Bartenfelder once considered becoming a lawyer, during the first of his three terms as a state delegate.

"On the Judiciary Committee there were 14 or 16 lawyers, and they all had farms they wanted to get to on weekends," he said. "They were always asking me how to grow things and saying they wished they could do that all the time. I figured I already had what they were trying to get."

What Bartenfelder has is a family farm, with the emphasis on family.

In the shadow of a red barn dating from his family's Baltimore County beginnings more than a century ago, Bartenfelder and his wife, Robin, worked recently with two seasonal hired hands hefting baskets of melons into a truck to sell at the weekly Pikesville farmers' market.

Nearby were his 3-year-old identical twin sons, Joey and Jamie, exploring the tool-strewn shed as daughters Jessica, 7, and Melanie, 11, kept an eye on them. Bartenfelder calls them "my miracle babies" because when they were born prematurely, each weighed less than 3 pounds.

Their mixed-breed black dog, Missy, was stretched out on the cool dirt of the shed floor.

Even his parents are close at hand. A neat brick rancher at the farm entrance on Ridge Road east of Belair Road is home for his father, Andrew Bartenfelder, a retired county correctional officer who, at 68, still works the fields (though he often skips the hottest afternoons), and his mother, Nancy, 59, who retired recently after 26 years as a county school bus driver.

Bringing in votes

The corn and tomatoes sold at the farm's produce stand, next to the farmhouse on Ridge Road, may bring in votes as much as cash. Friends and political supporters often stop there.

And as the 6-foot-3-inch, 230-pound Bartenfelder drives from field to field, he often waves and sometimes stops to chat with neighbors -- who also are his constituents.

"I can't picture myself doing anything else," except maybe one day becoming the county executive, he says.

Among his customers is Nickolai Volkoff, a professional wrestler, who was stopping by the produce stand for some plants.

"He worked a poll [on election day] for me," Bartenfelder said, which prompted Volkoff -- a Croatian who married into an old Glenarm family -- to joke that his imposing size gave extra meaning to his "Vote for Joe" pitch.

The other nonlawyer councilman, Vincent J. Gardina, a Democrat whose Perry Hall district borders Bartenfelder's, said that unpretentious, friendly, everyday quality helps make people feel comfortable with him.

"He's just very connected to the county. He knows all the people, grew up there, his kids go to school there, his family is around," Gardina said.

"He's got the common touch," says longtime legislative colleague and lawyer-Councilman Louis L. DePazzo, a Dundalk Democrat.

An early start

Bartenfelder's political career began at age 9, he said, when he walked door to door for his second cousin, Harry Bartenfelder, who ran on Dale Anderson's triumphant Democratic ticket to win the first of two County Council terms in 1966.

Bartenfelder, who graduated from Towson State University with a degree in business administration, lost his own first political race in 1978 for the House of Delegates -- and lost a congressional bid a decade later. But he won elections as delegate in 1982, 1986 and 1990, and to the council in 1994, gaining a reputation as a conservative Democrat.

The Bartenfelder farming business includes land both owned and rented. Most of some 15 acres on the Ridge Road portion, now surrounded by suburban sprawl, is destined to become part of the long-planned Fullerton Reservoir within 10 years. The family owns or rents 90 or so acres scattered around the northeastern county in Fullerton, Perry Hall and Kingsville.

They grow not only fruits and vegetables, but flowers, house plants and holiday greenery.

For the nine warmest months, Bartenfelder's days often run from 6: 30 a.m. until 11: 30 p.m., with council meetings once a week and several hours of constituent meetings most evenings in his district office on Belair Road, just north of the Beltway.

Unlike some council colleagues, Bartenfelder doesn't carry a cellular phone in his pocket, or even a beeper. When he's out plowing or picking, he says, he couldn't hear the device anyway.

His office staff can reach him through his family grapevine within an hour or two, he says.

"Being out on the tractor gives me a chance to roll everything over in my mind," he said, as he plowed a field in Perry Hall.

A quiet man

Still, farming keeps him away from some of the council's informal discussions, and he's a quiet man, not given to impassioned speeches. Shy and intimidated by veteran campaigners when he first ran for office, Bartenfelder said he learned to be more vocal when he ran for Congress in 1988.

He also learned early, he said, that fellow legislators pay more attention to those who don't have a public opinion on everything.

But Riley said that General Assembly wisdom can work against a County Council member who wants to be a leader. With only seven members, he says, an issue is decided when four members agree.

Those who hang back aren't likely to be influential.

He praised Bartenfelder, however, as "very politically astute" and "a quick study."

And unlike widely popular jokes about the legal profession, farmer jokes have been rare in the halls of government. At Bartenfelder's size, says Del. Michael H. Weir, an Essex Democrat, "You don't get a hell of a lot of kidding."

Pub Date: 8/21/96

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