Hey, guys, holding office isn't nuclear physics


November 09, 1997|By Brian Sullam

SOMETIMES I wonder which line elected officials were standing in when they passed out the smarts. Most political mistakes can be easily avoided, yet politicians always end up making terribly self-destructive errors.

As a service to current and aspiring office holders, I offer a few simple rules:

1) Be very careful when you ascribe crass political motives to judges.

Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary found this out the hard way when he accused Chief Administrative Judge Clayton R. Greene Jr. of failing to pursue perjury charges against an assistant state's attorney for filing false affidavits on seized cars.

We all know too well that elected officials -- from the president to the local alderman -- are quick to do favors for people who contribute to and work on their election campaigns.

Judges in Maryland have to run to retain their seats. They raise money for their campaigns and have volunteers that work for them. However, that doesn't mean that they automatically rush to help their political supporters.

Judges only get involved in cases where there is an issue requiring judicial intervention.

Despite Mr. Gary's strong feelings that Assistant State's Attorney Trevor A. Kiessling Jr. had committed perjury when he submitted court papers saying that the police chief had personally reviewed car seizures when he hadn't, there was no issue before the court for Judge Greene to rule on. None of the owners of the cars had filed motions to overturn the forfeitures.

In theory, because the affidavit had been incorrect, they might have grounds to have their cars returned. But the cost of litigation far outweighs the value of the cars.

As a result, no owner is likely to petition the court, and Judge Greene has no reason to rule on whether Mr. Kiessling submitted affidavits that contained lies.

Mr. Gary's effort to drag Judge Greene into his quarrel with county State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee boomeranged.

Instead of advancing his argument against Mr. Weathersbee in the court of public opinion, the executive destroyed his case.

A contrite Mr. Gary had to apologize, an action that most politicians prefer to avoid.

2) As an elected official, never put your spouse on your payroll.

This rule is obvious, yet politicians break it repeatedly.

It is not illegal for a councilman to hire a family member to help prepare legislation and respond to citizen complaints, but it creates tacky situations.

First District Councilman George F. Bachman Jr.'s lone legislative aide is his wife, Anna. She is also the council's highest-paid aide. Her salary, which Mr. Bachman voted on, was recently raised to $50,589, the maximum allowed for employees in her category.

To the average citizen it appears that Mr. Bachman -- who earns $26,000 as a part-time council member -- is using the public treasury to enrich his family. Most of us would love to approve raises for our spouses that others have to pay. In Mr. Bachman's case, the taxpayers are picking up the tab.

Mr. Bachman is not the first councilman to employ his wife. Former Councilman Theodore J. Sophocleus hired his wife, Alice, in the 1980s.

If an elected official's spouse has extraordinary talents that would be useful,make the spouse a volunteer. No one objects to wives or husbands helping out an elected official. Paying them to do work is guaranteed to create problems with the voters.

3) Never accuse your opponent of being responsible for committing vandalism unless you can catch him or her red-handed.

Sylvanus B. Jones, a candidate for mayor of Annapolis this fall, may have to learn this lesson the hard way. When he discovered swastikas on his campaign signs July 1, he immediately pointed the finger at opponent Carl O. Snowden.

If Mr. Jones had thought for a nanosecond, he would have concluded that Mr. Snowden would have to be the most self-destructive politician in Annapolis to vandalize an opponent's signs.

Destruction of campaign signs makes the candidate a victim. Voters tend to sympathize with victims of dirty tricks.

Mr. Snowden was the last person who wanted to make Mr. Jones a sympathetic figure.

Now that the election is over, Mr. Snowden is suing Mr. Jones for defamation and asking $1 million in damages.

Even if Mr. Snowden can't prove his case, it will cost Mr. Jones a bundle to defend himself.

4) Never resort to anonymous mailings late in the campaign.

Late in the mayoral campaign, selected homes in Annapolis' 1st District received an anonymous letter directly attacking Alderman Louise M. Hammond and her husband, John, the county budget officer, and indirectly attacking Republican mayoral candidate Dean L. Johnson.

Again, the target benefited from this desperate maneuver.

Another act of political stupidity backfired.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 11/09/97

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