Voters want politicians who are civil, not slick Mayoral election shows 'nice' triumphs over nasty

September 22, 1997|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Forget your average slick and savvy politician. Tuesday's primary election in Annapolis proved again that "nice" will win the mayoral race.

Don't be negative, voters said overwhelmingly when they cast their ballots. Just be like Al -- as in affable Alfred A. Hopkins, the city's beloved 72-year-old mayor, a Democrat who will finish his second and last term in December.

For 16 years, that's the message voters in this historic city by the bay have sent their candidates.

Just ask Alderman Dean L. Johnson, who, many say, won the Republican Party's mayoral nomination last week mainly by dint of personality and a platform based on civility. He easily defeated Ward 7 Alderman M. Theresa DeGraff, who was criticized for running a negative campaign.

She attacked Johnson in public forums and handed out hard-edged fliers that said such things as: "While Dean Johnson has been trying to make up his mind, Terrie DeGraff has gotten things done."

Said Johnson: "I don't think it's so much the sum total of this election, but the message citizens sent me while going door-to-door was they want [nice]. Annapolis is a laid-back community. Not laid-back California-style, but very knowing of its neighbors and its community. There's a desire to be helpful when it can be."

As an alderman from Ward 2 since 1989, Johnson has a reputation for encouraging patience, sensibility and courtesy. Residents have had it with incivility, Johnson says.

And historically speaking, Johnson is right.

Voters got rid of Mayor Richard L. Hillman in 1985 after only one contentious term. They replaced him with Dennis M. Callahan, who also exhibited a penchant for abrasiveness. The Eastport resident lasted one term, and in walked Hopkins, first elected to the city council in 1961 to represent Ward 6.

Callahan was easily beaten by Hopkins, a former Capital newspaper sports editor and native Annapolitan known more for his folksy tales of bygone days than his knowledge of city law.

When Callahan asked for a second chance in 1993, voters turned him down again. Back for a second term was Hopkins, who was still nice in a grandfatherly sort of way.

If city law didn't forbid Hopkins from running for a third term, he could have proved a formidable candidate.

"Annapolis is a small town, where relations with your neighbor is important," said William C. Mulford II, a Republican who represents Annapolis on the Anne Arundel County Council.

"And the mayor is no different. They want someone who will work well with others on the council, in the county and state. They want a mayor who's also a good neighbor.

"Bullies don't get elected in Annapolis," said Mulford, "and if by chance they do get into office, they aren't re-elected."

At the same time, Mulford said, Annapolis voters want their mayors not to abandon their principles, not to compromise themselves and to be tough.

Which might indicate why voters are giving Callahan another chance.

In his new attempt at re-election, he narrowly defeated Ward 5 Alderman Carl O. Snowden last week in the race for the Democratic mayoral nomination.

This time in a most civil campaign between two men known for being outspoken, Callahan focused on telling voters that he's "more mellow and laid-back now."

To prove it, he was often seen kissing babies; hugging his wife, Brenda; and telling voters, "God bless you, I love you," on the campaign trail.

The image he cultivated was that of a man mellowed at age 56, more relaxed than the brash 44-year-old mayor some voters might remember.

Callahan concentrated time and money on cable television commercials that depicted him as a kindly grandfather.

"What helped Dean win was Terrie DeGraff," said Snowden, who has not endorsed either candidate for the general election. "It was bad political strategy on her part to go negative. It was out of character for Annapolis politics.

"Dennis was able to win in the primary by convincing people that he had matured and that he was willing to be a consensus leader," Snowden said. "That image appealed to Democrats who believed him.

"Personality will definitely play a major role in this race," said Snowden -- especially because both candidates agree on so many issues.

Both men say the city doesn't need a revenue authority or a conference center.

Both believe city annexation of county land has spiraled out of control, causing congestion and growth that the city's infrastructure cannot handle.

Both are running on a platform that includes preserving the integrity and character of neighborhoods.

The best expectation is that Johnson and Callahan will try to outdo each other in congeniality until the general election in November, with Callahan starting as the underdog.

Johnson's kindly personality is so well-known that his biggest supporters have not-so-secretly begun referring to him as the "Hopkins with brains" candidate.

Pub Date: 9/22/97

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