Media spokesman for Rehrmann mixes politics with business He handles family hardware store and reporters' queries

June 21, 1998|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

The press chief for Harford County Executive and Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Eileen M. Rehrmann often runs the Rehrmann media machine out of his own high-profile business -- between the paint cans and the drop cloths, on Main Street in Bel Air.

George F. Harrison, a longtime friend and political aide to Rehrmann, has learned how to handle reporters' phone calls even as he doles out advice about what's hot this season in the world of flat and semi-gloss.

"I get calls from people who say, 'I'm calling about Eileen Rehrmann, are you the one I need to talk to?' " said Harrison, 63, a former CBS News employee who took over Harrison's Paint Center after his father retired in 1968. "That is quickly followed by, 'Where am I calling again?' "

As a part-time, $28,000-a-year spokesman on contract with the county executive's office, Harrison oversees the county's public information office and supervises press releases for county government agencies.

But he also puts in endless hours as a volunteer for Rehrmann's gubernatorial campaign, dashing to events with the high-energy candidate and trying to secure as much media coverage for her as possible.

"I think they are very evenly matched, he and Eileen, and that is why they work so well together," said Susan J. Collins, a public information officer for Harford County. "Adrenalin is their middle name."

In a cramped space he shares with an old computer, fax machine and cans of paint products, Harrison cradles the phone on his shoulder, talking with a reporter on the phone and to his daughter Deborah, 30, who works in the store.

"Mary didn't say anything about adding the thinner, did she?" his daughter asks.

"Eileen won't be available until later today," Harrison said into the phone, before covering the mouthpiece with his hand. "She didn't say anything to me about the thinner," he quietly tells his daughter.

Harrison's paint store first opened in 1947 when the elder George Harrison left his job selling oil to small gas stations and returned to his hometown of Bel Air. His son grew up learning the fine points of politics and paint from him.

"My father had run for the House of Delegates in the '50s and he was also on the town board," said the younger Harrison. "I had politics in the blood."

Declining to take over his father's business, Harrison headed to the University of Miami, where he graduated in 1957 with a degree in communications before returning to Maryland, where he took a job with Channel 2.

"We had a small news organization and I did copy writing and assigning," Harrison said. "I did everything I could to get out in the street and do reports."

After traveling in Europe for six months, he took a job in radio as a broadcast wire writer in Chicago in 1959. In 1961, Harrison married Cora Rueckert and, two days after their wedding, the couple landed in New York City, where Harrison took a job on the assignment desk for a wire service.

That job led to a position with CBS, first writing radio news copy and later as a television producer with local CBS News in New York. But in 1968, disenchanted with life in New York, Harrison decided to return to Harford County.

"I really got tired of the New York corporate culture," Harrison recalls. "The only thing else I knew was the paint business."

He was an active local business leader and met Rehrmann as a member of the Bel Air Community Development Commission. When Rehrmann ran for the House of Delegates in 1982, she asked Harrison to be her campaign manager. Once she was elected county executive, Harrison became her spokesman.

Harrison is fiercely loyal and protective of his boss and consistently steers the conversation away from himself and onto what he touts as her achievements: how Rehrmann was named most promising freshman while a delegate; her ability to bring people together; her intelligence and savvy.

"I really like Eileen, and I consider her a friend," Harrison said. "Early on, I saw something very special in her."

That affection and respect is returned by Rehrmann, who counts Harrison as one of her advisers.

"There are different people with different agendas, but his bottom line is always what is best for the citizens," Rehrmann said. "He's always available and he always responds when called on to do something."

Paul Thompson, chairman of the Economic and Community Development Commission for Bel Air, said Harrison's political work is an extension of his civic activities.

"I think he cares very deeply about Bel Air and its economic success," Thompson said. "He's a business person who's very interested in politics and very supportive of Eileen."

Harrison said modern technology, a good staff and the ability to "not lose focus" enables him to split time between the two jobs. And, of course, his hope that the Governor's Mansion is in line to be redecorated in the fall.

Pub Date: 6/21/98

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