He's too moderate, he's too responsible

December 01, 1996|By Elise Armacost

BOBBY NEALL'S latest return to politics finds him the focus of a question more complex and important than whether he is qualified to succeed his friend and mentor, Jack Cade, in the state Senate.

Of course he's qualified. Three terms in the House of Delegates, including a stint as minority leader; one term as Anne Arundel County executive; a talent for cracking fiscal problems. No other candidate to replace Mr. Cade, who died last month, offers such experience and expertise. No one seriously disputes that.

But despite his abilities, is Mr. Neall after two decades in and around politics the kind of elected leader the public should want?

An increasingly strident faction of his party, ideologues in the Ellen Sauerbrey mold, wants the Anne Arundel Republican Central Committee to reject him in favor of less qualified, less moderate candidates. Last week Mr. Neall seemed to be only half kidding when he asked editorial writers to stop writing that he's respected by both parties and that he values accomplishment above ideological purity. Within the GOP these assets are becoming about as attractive as a carbuncle on the forehead.

Sauerbrey purists are sick of the Cades and Nealls, fiscal conservatives who lack one-sided passion for (and in some cases disagree with) right-wing positions on abortion, gun control, tax cuts and other litmus-test issues. They abhor the constructive bipartisanship that made Messrs. Cade and Neall influential in a Democrat-controlled legislature. Equating reasonable compromise with lack of principle, the ideologues would rather stick to their guns and get nothing done.

"Art of the deal"

''We need an abandonment of the 'art of the deal' that sometimes transcends party lines in Maryland,'' one Arthur W. Downs wrote to the Anne Arundel central committee. ''Insiders'' like Mr. Neall, he says, don't serve the average citizen.

The party, of course, is not the public, something the central committee should bear in mind. Average citizens are most comfortable on either side of the center -- the territory occupied by the Nealls and Cades. They prefer elected leaders willing to transcend party differences. Hasn't that been voters' complaint about Congress for years -- that representatives spend too much time bickering along party lines?

As for the insider label, it fits Mr. Neall, as it did his mentor. Mr. Cade enjoyed this role, and so does Mr. Neall. There's nothing wrong with that as long as the insider retains a clear and constant understanding that his mission is to serve the public, that personal enjoyment is incidental.

Mr. Cade used his insider status to affect issues from reforestation to taxes. Mr. Neall renounced his taxpayer-funded pension -- a benefit to which he is entitled after spending the better part of his adult life in public service -- so no one could accuse him of serving for personal gain.

A concern about Mr. Neall, even among media types who love a centrist, is that he has moved in and out of politics too often. From the House of Delegates to lobbyist for Johns Hopkins Hospital to state drug czar to county executive to lobbyist again and now, he hopes, to the state Senate.

No ruthless ambition

There might be something wrong with this if Mr. Neall were ruthlessly plotting a course toward higher office or playing some game designed to feather his nest. But his refusal to run for governor in 1994 despite excellent odds betrays a lack of raw ambition. And public life has not enriched him, but cost him money. He gave up a lucrative job at Johns Hopkins (which he took after losing a bid for Congress) to become county executive. He did not run for a second term largely because he was worried about financing his four children's educations. He subsequently set up a lobbying-consulting firm which now brings him more than $100,000 annually.

If he gets the Senate seat, he will have to give up the lobbying contracts, which initially will halve his income. With one son through college and another recently accepted to the Naval Academy, he says he can afford it now.

At a time when the public disdains politicians who are out of touch with real life, I find it hypocritical to fault those with an interest in public service who move between the public and private spheres depending on what's best for them and their families. But it's harder to lump all politicians in one unflattering caricature if we allow them to be real citizens, too.

''I have not lain awake at night and thought about getting back into public service,'' Mr. Neall said. ''But life brings certain surprises. This is an opportunity to finish the work for somebody who was almost like a second father to me. If I don't get it, I won't lose $150,000 in income and I can go back and live happily ever after. . . . But Jack was my dearest friend. I feel a sense of responsibility.''

The people of Anne Arundel and Maryland could do worse.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 12/01/96

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