Abrasive Gary heads toward political exile Arundel's executive loses favor with clumsy salesmanship

September 04, 1996|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

John G. Gary is an exile in his own executive office suite.

Anne Arundel's brash county executive, once so powerful that his critics dubbed him King John, is politically friendless after a hectic summer. Through a mix of tough talk and clumsy salesmanship, the Millersville Republican has managed to undermine what four months ago was rock-solid political support for a variety of fiscal austerity measures.

Labor unions, parent groups, even fellow Republican legislators -- Gary has alienated all of them halfway through his four-year term. Gary was considered politically untouchable when the summer started.

Now, pretenders to the Arundel Center's paneled fourth-floor executive suite are looking toward the 1998 race with new enthusiasm, including his Democratic rival of two years ago, Theodore J. Sophocleus, who is planning fund-raisers this fall.

"Gary hasn't been able to earn the respect of anybody he has to work with in order to succeed as county executive," said John R. Kurpjuweit, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County, which has been at odds with the county executive all year.

"Now that he's in the spotlight, people are starting to notice what kind of a person he is. John Gary is not a nice person."

Two years is plenty of time for Gary to restore a political stature that won him 53 percent of the vote in 1994. But it will take some concerted public relations to make amends to everyone he has offended, all in the name of balancing the county budget while operating with a voter-approved tax ceiling.

"When you are in my job, you take your lumps. Government is doing business differently than it used to," Gary said. "People have to understand that we are restructuring the whole government."

Robert C. Schaeffer, president of the Anne Arundel Taxpayers Association and a Gary defender, said, "Why should government grow faster than the rate of inflation? The only people complaining are the usual handout crowds -- unions and schools."

But the list is longer. It includes Annapolis property owners, who saw their taxes rise with Gary's 1997 budget; North County residents, who are watching a 400-bed jail being built in their back yards; and parent groups, who have deplored Gary's decision to scale back school construction projects and allow classrooms to swell beyond state-set limits.

Many employees furious

Many of Anne Arundel's 3,500 employees are furious with his policy of withholding pay raises while moving to increase the salaries of two Cabinet members. South County parents are suing him for refusing to halt residential development near crowded schools until classrooms exceed state capacity guidelines by 15 percent to 20 percent.

The county's second-most-powerful Republican, County Council Chairwoman Diane R. Evans, almost single-handedly killed his pension reform bill, which, among other things, would have eliminated guaranteed cost-of-living raises for retirees.

And Gary seemingly has no political favors to call in to help end a lingering investigation by Anne Arundel's ethics commission into allegations of low-grade cronyism within his administration.

For 11 weeks, Anne Arundel's ethics commission has been trying to determine whether Gary ignored prescribed civil-service hiring procedures to reward three former campaign workers and a longtime State House aide with county jobs after his 1994 election.

Most politicians acknowledge that campaign loyalty often is rewarded with government jobs. But Gary, who appoints the seven ethics commissioners, doesn't have anyone to pull the plug on what is becoming a protracted embarrassment to an administration that has made personnel reform a priority.

With a bunker mentality, administration officials sense political retribution against a personnel department that has been the engine behind Gary's aggressive cost-cutting measures. County Attorney Phillip F. Scheibe has said that "this will fall short of Watergate," but ethics commissioners could decide next week to proceed with unprecedented hearings into the matter.

Process is criticized

"This whole process has taken too long," said E. Hilton Wade, the county's personnel officer. "There's more going on here than an investigation into ethics."

County executives have always addressed tough policy issues by applying personal charm to political ends. Howard County's laconic Republican executive, Charles I. Ecker, has turned bland competence into a political mystique that he may try to ride to the governor's mansion.

In Baltimore County, Democrat C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III has used blunt talk with a personal touch for employees to win favor with county unions even as he trims the public payroll.

But Gary has watched his political influence diminish in direct proportion to the public's exposure to his rough-edged personality, which sets the tone for his administration.

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