In Balto. County races, two quirky campaigners Booster: Donald Crockett -- with help from his skateboarding pooch -- is a colorful fixture on the stump, despite 'flip-flopping' political parties.

September 03, 1998|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

In the changing world of politics -- increasingly dominated by highly paid consultants and their cell phones, sound bites and power neckties -- Donald Raymond Crockett is a quirky campaign constant and a splash of welcome color.

For years, he has toiled for Democrats and Republicans, county executives and state legislators. And with his bright polo shirts and teal Corvette convertible, the east side volunteer is hard to miss, especially when he's pulling his skateboarding dog, Precious.

But personalities such as Crockett, 52, whose political birthright traces back to the days of smoky back rooms and kingmakers, are slowly becoming anachronisms.

"I love the competition of a race, but times change," the Baltimore County liquor board inspector said recently, as he prepared for another day of campaigning.

A few weeks before the primary election, Crockett is busy lining up appearances at parades, bull roasts and shopping center rallies -- the lifeblood of Maryland politics -- along with the pooch with big sunglasses and more outfits than Ivana Trump.

"At a fair, for example, I'm in the background when the kids run up to see Precious on her skateboard," said Crockett, who pulls the dog on a leash. "When their parents drift over, the candidate starts up a conversation with them on the issues. I just step back and grin; my job's done."

For state Sen. Michael J. Collins, an Essex Democrat being challenged by Republican Del. Kenneth Holt, "Don's plan works. That's all I know."

Precious, a 9-year-old mixed breed, is Crockett's shtick, his entree to the company of governors, legislators, county executives and political strategists such as Larry S. Gibson. Not all is done in the name of electioneering.

In a printed list of his pet's accomplishments, Crockett says Precious has appeared in more than 200 parades from Rising Sun to Annapolis and "has been petted by thousands and is Loved by All!" Precious has been the "party animal" at 40 holiday parties and has visited countless hospitals and homes for the aged.

'Making memories'

His dog is so well-known that Crockett's telephone voice-mail message spins a homey country tune, a distant bark and an invitation: "Me and Pres are out making memories. Leave us a bark and we'll get back to ya."

Working for politicians, though, is the focus of Crockett's life.

"Look at these," he says, leafing through bulging photo albums that show public figures shaking his hand and slapping his back. "I've had dinner with many of these people in their homes, met their lovely wives. It's exciting, what I do."

To many, aware of his community activism and attempts to improve the image of Baltimore County's east side, Crockett is a benefit on the political scene. Others are somewhat less charitable.

"For years, Crockett's survived flip-flopping the major parties, and that's his strength," said Robert J. Barrett, political trouble-shooter for County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, for whom Crockett is working in this campaign.

"He's not a player in that sense of the word, but his volunteerism makes him noticed," Barrett said. "Not too many people don't know him and his dog.

"Don Crockett, once he declares his loyalty to you, is a good worker to have in your camp. And he's in mine," Barrett said.

Holt's opinion of the pitchman from Essex has changed. Several years ago, Holt and Crockett were close friends. Today, their relationship is strained.

"Don's colorful. He likes being with the group in power," Holt said.

Thomas Lehner, president of the Bowleys Quarters Improvement Association, said his opinion was shaped at a November meeting, as community residents sought to halt a local air show in the aftermath of an F-117A stealth fighter crash.

Crockett, as an emissary for Republican U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., sprang to his feet to defend the show.

"I was extremely surprised how quick he was to belittle us for expressing our concerns about airplanes crashing into our neighborhood," Lehner said. "And he did it in the name of Ehrlich; he was Bob's man there."

Crockett was raised in O'Donnell Heights. He got his political baptism in the 1960s, when he hung out at a Dundalk tavern owned by the late state Sen. Joseph Staszak, a fabled East Baltimore ward heeler.

Those days of easy-come, easy-go politics appealed to Crockett. "If somebody got a parking ticket, wanted a job, you went to see Senator Joe. He was an old-time politician. It was simple."

Liquor board inspector

Crockett dabbled in catering, the drywall business and a gun shop before moving to Essex in the 1970s. Later, he became a liquor board inspector, the position he holds today.

He was appointed to that job by Roger B. Hayden, a Republican who was then county executive and for whom Crockett and Precious hustled from Sparrows Point to Catonsville.

"Roger Hayden, really a good guy, was in over his head with a bunch of yes people surrounding him," Crockett said. "Dutch is the best executive Baltimore County has ever had."

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