GOP primary for mayor takes a personal turn Aldermen DeGraff, Johnson slug it out in race 'too close to call'

September 12, 1997|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

She is seen as strong-willed, opinionated and tough. He is considered nicer, more open-minded, sensible.

For Aldermen M. Theresa DeGraff and Dean L. Johnson, two city council colleagues slugging it out in an often contentious Republican mayoral primary in Annapolis, the campaign has been more about personalities than issues.

DeGraff, the city's Ward 7 alderman for 12 years, is labeled a "flip-flopper, hardheaded and hot-tempered" by Johnson supporters.

And Johnson, who has represented Ward 2 for eight years, is called "wishy-washy, weak and a Democrat in sheep's clothing" by DeGraff supporters.

The race is "too close to call," according to Alderman Carl O. Snowden, who is watching the GOP campaign closely with good reason: He hopes to capture the Democratic mayoral nomination when Annapolis voters go to the polls Tuesday.

When DeGraff announced her candidacy in April, she was called the front-runner. But then Johnson -- who registered as an independent to serve on the council -- switched to the Republican Party and filed to run against her.

Johnson, originally seen as a dark horse, caught up quickly, mostly because of personality, many observers say.

"Terrie seems to run more of a negative campaign," says Republican Robert McWilliams, who is running for the city council from Ward 8. "She's seen as more quick to attack her opponent, and that turns people off. Meanwhile, people see Dean as being Mr. Nice Guy.

"People want a cordial campaign," adds McWilliams, who says he's not supporting either candidate.

But DeGraff supporters say those qualities are exactly what the state's capital, with a population of about 34,000, needs for the next century.

"She's not afraid to step on people's toes," says Brian Calahan, owner of 49 West coffee shop. "That's a sign of strength we want in a leader. She's driven, and she's excited about the future of Annapolis.

"Dean's a nice guy, but he seems to go with the wind," Calahan says.

DeGraff grew up the oldest of six children in a working-class family in Riviera Beach. She joined the Army in 1976 and for four years was a German translator and battalion training sergeant.

A city resident since 1980, she holds a bachelor's degree in criminology from the University of Maryland and works in a county program to place prison inmates in long-term drug treatment.

Johnson, who has lived in Annapolis for 25 years, grew up in the farm town of Pullman, Wash., and graduated from Washington State University with a bachelor's degree in economics.

He has made his mark in the city serving on boards for the Annapolis Opera Company, Ann-arundel County Trust for Historic Preservation and Annapolis Regional Transportation Association, among others. He quit his job as an economist for the U.S. Department of Transportation so he could run in a partisan election without violating federal civil service laws.

It is that switch, from independent to Republican, that some say might prove favorable for DeGraff.

"The best thing Terrie has going for her is that some staunch Republicans are saying, 'Who is this Dean Johnson who thinks he can just change parties and run as a Republican?' " said former Mayor Richard Hillman. "I've heard people are switching parties to vote for Dean because he's 'a nice guy.' What about the staunch Republicans who come out to vote every election year?"

Lost are the issues, Hillman says.

It is DeGraff's reputation for being tough and aggressive -- especially when it comes to promoting economic growth and creating business-friendly city policies -- that has won her


She championed legislation to allow sidewalk cafes downtown and led the fight to broaden the composition of the city's Historic District Commission. But that has made her public enemy No. 1 with many historic district residents who say DeGraff is willing to sacrifice the character of their neighborhood for economic growth.

But DeGraff says, "I represent the entire city, not just a segment of it. As for my reputation, I say you have to be able to inspire people and take a strong stand for the city. I do things. I get things done. That's my reputation."

Two things DeGraff and Johnson seem to agree on are lowering taxes and opposing a publicly funded conference center. Other than that, the two seem to contrast sharply -- although they accuse each other of caving in to outside influences on various issues.

Johnson opposes creating a revenue authority to build parking garages and other projects to help solve the city's traffic problems. DeGraff favors it. He says regional cooperation is the only solution. He also opposes annexation without proper planning, while DeGraff has championed moves to annex property on the city's southern border.

Supporters say Johnson is known for being open-minded, studied and sensible when dealing with issues he cares most about, such as preserving the city's neighborhoods and reforming the city's charter.

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