Too busy working to be a bad guy

December 15, 1996|By Elise Armacost

LOU DEPAZZO'S quietness has been very loud lately, which, if you haven't actually seen him, might make you wonder if the 63-year-old Democratic councilman from Dundalk is all right.

Lou DePazzo -- he of the hair-trigger temper, the ill-advised quote, the crude aside and the firebrand speech -- hasn't said or done anything controversial in months.

Last spring the Lou we thought we knew showed up at that big community meeting about the ACLU's lawsuit on behalf of Baltimore public-housing families, but even there he was pretty restrained, offering no repeat of his embarrassing 1994 performance at meetings on the Moving to Opportunity program. Since then, he's been a virtual trouble-free zone. What gives?

Here's what: Lou DePazzo has been busy being a councilman, too busy for the kind of shenanigans some expected when he was elected two years ago. He's been working hard, ''harder than I ever thought when I left the legislature.'' Sixty, sixty-five hours a week, except during fishing season, when he admits he cut back to 35 or 40. ''Nothing glamorous,'' he says. Inspecting potholes and back alleys he never knew existed. Visiting schools and senior centers. Fielding complaints from ordinary folks who feel put upon by regulations. Negotiating with community groups over the various pieces of the East Side revitalization puzzle.

Right after the 1994 elections County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger seemed concerned that Mr. DePazzo might be an uncontrollable lone wolf. Today, he says Mr. DePazzo could serve as council chairman -- a cherished leadership position selected by council members each December -- as well as anybody. And not, the executive says, just because Mr. DePazzo has been too busy to talk himself into trouble, but because he seems to be growing into a better politician than the obstreperous outsider he was in Annapolis.

In Annapolis, Delegate DePazzo wanted badly to be more than one of 141 ''rogue elephants,'' as he puts it, but he never figured out how to do it. ''I couldn't get any good bills passed because I couldn't kiss 140 butts,'' he says. ''Nobody even noticed you until you killed one of their pet bills.'' So that's the niche he carved out for himself: raising a stink over bills he considered bad. That way, at least people knew who Lou DePazzo was. At least he could say he accomplished something.

Now he is one of seven rather than one of 141, with an executive who treats him like he matters. He doesn't have to act crazy to get things done or get noticed. He has learned that rudeness, crudeness and craziness bring a notoriety he doesn't want. ''Those other six -- if you are not a good guy, well, they can make you look pretty bad.''

Himself to blame

And he has never wanted to look bad, though he has done his best at times to make that happen. The hurtful things he said about poor people at those 1994 MTO hearings get resurrected every time his name surfaces in a story of some regional significance. It makes no difference if he is guilty of thoughtless hyperemotionalism rather than malice. He knows he has no one but himself to blame for his untoward comments, but feels it will be terribly unfair if, after his public career, that's all anybody remembers.

Lou DePazzo may not fit anyone's preconception of an idealist, but he voices some pretty noble sentiments when asked why he got into politics. ''Wanting to change the world,'' ''to help people.'' This isn't mere baloney. The councilman has had his ambitions, but at this point he isn't quietly spending his days checking out school boiler rooms and crumbling curbs because he aspires to some higher office. He will probably run for another term on the council, and then go fishing. He's sincere about public service, and sincerely bothered by those who assume he's not.

''People think politicians are callous, but they're not,'' he says. ''That psychological need to be loved and approved of, we all have that.''

After the recent comprehensive rezoning, in which Mr. DePazzo supported changes allowing a controversial new community called Beechwood, which he views as vital to keeping young working families in Dundalk, ''Some lady called my campaign manager and said, 'Well, he must have gotten paid off on that one.' It hurts. That's when I get nostalgic for the House of Delegates, where you only have to deal with concepts. You'd get two calls all session, one about abortion and one about the death penalty, and that was it. Here, you get beat up a lot.''

Not so long ago he would have given as good as he got, letting that Italian temper fly, probably saying something stupid he'd regret later. The new Lou is learning better. He holds his tongue, and goes back to work.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 12/15/96

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