It's a funny old town, Annapolis is

September 14, 1997|By Elise Armacost

IT'S ELECTION time in Annapolis, and funny things are happening. Funny things have always happened in Annapolis.

This may surprise you, if you've always thought of the state capital in terms of the State House, the Naval Academy and ladies in colonial costumes. But Annapolis is a small town, with real issues like traffic, racial tensions and how to manage growth. It's quirky, bustling, gossipy. ''I don't think anybody in Annapolis is ho-hum about anything,'' says Linnell Bowen, executive director of Annapolis' Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts.

The political goings-on are at various times refreshingly lively, disturbingly petty, unusual and downright goofy.

In 1774 Annapolitans torched the tea-laden Peggy Stewart.

In 1981 Alderman Gustav Akerland was chosen to lead when the mayor quit, leaving public finances a mess. Poor Mr. Akerland could not handle the pressure, and he killed himself.

A few years later Mayor Dennis Callahan, who launched a high-profile war against drugs, had bullet-proof glass installed at City Hall because he thought Jamaican drug lords were after him.

A nice but daffy lady named Louise Beauregard proposed, during her last try for city alderman, to raise City Dock to prepare for global warming.

Not long ago Alderman M. Theresa DeGraff saw Alderman Dean Johnson making faces while she was discussing a bill during a City Council meeting. She asked him to stop. He got up and told her she could talk to his empty chair. She said, ''Alderman Johnson, I am talking to an empty chair whether you're sitting there or not.''

Right now, a polyglot of 40-odd candidates are trying to get elected to city office, including Ms. DeGraff and Mr. Johnson, who are competing in Tuesday's Republican primary, and the competent but controversial Mr. Callahan, a Democrat making his third attempt at re-election since voters ousted him in 1989. The other serious mayoral candidate is Democratic Alderman Carl O. Snowden.

This election marks the beginning of a more assertive mayoral presence and the end of the era of Al Hopkins, retiring at 72 after eight years as mayor and 28 as an alderman. Mr. Hopkins is old Annapolis, a link to the days when it was a little fishing town. He likes to croon songs and tell hokey jokes; sometimes he fumbles his syntax. The city has hummed along under the people he hired to run the government while he enjoyed himself cutting ribbons and giving tours to folks who wander past City Hall, and he'd win a third term if he were allowed to run again. But he isn't, so Annapolis is headed toward the future.

The campaign has been bizarre, even by Annapolis standards.

All in the family

A fellow named Michael T. Brown, who desperately wants to get elected to something and keeps changing to whatever party he thinks will give him the best chance, got his 20-year-old daughter, Telia, to run as a Republican against incumbent Alderman Wayne Turner. Then he registered as an Independent in the same contest, setting up the possibility of a race against his own daughter. It won't happen, because Mr. Brown ran afoul of election rules and has been disqualified. Mr. Turner has dropped out of the race, too late to have his name removed from the ballot. So he could win even though he isn't running.

Democratic mayoral candidate Sylvanus Jones, who got involved with politics because he was mad about his water bill and who happens to be black, found his campaign signs painted with swastikas. He accused Mr. Snowden -- one of Maryland's best-known civil-rights activists who is also black -- of defacing them.

Three aldermanic candidates were thrown off the ballot for violating an arcane registration rule. Around town, rumor has it that this is a conspiracy by Democratic Alderman Louise Hammond and her husband, John, a Republican whom she replaced as representative of the downtown district, to get rid of candidates they don't like. Relations between the Hammonds, alternately revered and disliked in Annapolis, and Ms. DeGraff appear especially foul.

Indeed, this mayoral contest promises to be close partly because portions of the community personally despise each of the major candidates, with the possible exception of Mr. Johnson. Thus, the campaign has revolved around personalities. citizens watching from beyond the political arena, it must look a little childish.

That is too bad, because like them or hate them, many of these people are capable and intelligent, with a good grasp of the issues and ambitions that extend only as far as the city line. Even those who might have a shot at higher office seem uninterested in serving anywhere else. They really care about hTC their city -- a fact that ultimately matters more than all the funny stuff going on down there now.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 9/14/97

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