Gary: A savvy pol or opportunist? Incumbent: Anne Arundel County's executive has won grudging praise for reaching beyond his conservative base.

September 23, 1998|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

A portrait of Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary drawn by his political enemies is that he's a clumsy, conservative bully, rough on the environment, suspicious of educators, indifferent to blacks.

But as he enters a fight for re-election Nov. 3, a more accurate picture of him may be that of a heavyweight boxer: powerful, light on his feet and respected by many with reason to dislike him, say local politicians and activists.

His critics say he's just pandering in an election year, but Gary, a Republican, has recently won grudging praise for his keen political instincts from people far removed from his normal base of conservative business leaders.

Criticized for his poor relationships with school officials, Gary was applauded by school administrators for holding a news conference after Tuesday's primary and making a peace offering of $17 million more for school renovations.

Asked at an Aug. 20 forum of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People if he was a racist, Gary told the group five days later he would start sending his human relations officer to assist any victims of hate crimes.

Blasted by environmentalists last year as a friend of developers, Gary won praise from the greens in July by pledging to pay $3 million for the preservation of 500 acres of the Shady Side peninsula.

Opportunism or the responsiveness of a good public servant? Those who will benefit from the school renovations, the victim-assistance or the land preservation say motive doesn't matter: The county government is doing good things for them.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat and Gary critic, said voters should not be duped by Gary's last-minute throwing around of money and promises.

"Gary wants to soften his image with those who find his politics most distasteful," Miller said. "If you look at his record, he has not been good for the environment, he has not been good for education and I don't know about minorities. People tend to have very short memory spans, and I think that's what John Gary is betting on."

Gary said he is outraged that Miller would be so ignorant of his record and county government.

"I am amazed that he would say that," Gary said. "I have spent more money for school construction than any other Anne Arundel County executive in a four-year term, $167 million. And I have had a quietly successful environmental record for my entire four years, because I believe you can balance the interests of businesses and environmental concerns."

Gary noted that his actions on behalf of minorities have not been limited to one pledge last month.

He said that for three years his administration has been working on a plan to spend more than $15 million renovating a powerful symbol of the African-American community in Annapolis: the now-closed Bates High School, which until the 1960s was the only local school blacks could attend.

"A cynic might say, 'Holy smoke! This is all happening right before the election,' " said Republican state Sen. Robert R. Neall, a former Anne Arundel county executive. "But the fact is that John's term in office has been full of real accomplishments in these areas."

For example, Gary's administration has spent $6 million on school textbooks over the past two years because county schools Superintendent Carol S. Parham approached him with a request, Neall said.

In June, Gary won the "Green Heron" award from a conservation group called the Severn River Association, which was happy that Gary had taken steps to limit pollution in the waterway.

Some of those who will benefit from Gary's election-year largess say they care more about results than Gary's motives.

Board of Education member Thomas E. Florestano said Gary's announcement Tuesday that put an end to his feud with school officials was not merely rhetoric.

Florestano said the $17 million will make a real difference by allowing administrators to fix up the "deplorable" condition of decaying schools.

Gary and the Board of Education had been arguing bitterly since spring, with Gary claiming the schools must be misspending because they cut a program for gifted students despite a $14 million budget increase.

"I just thank God it's election time," Florestano said. "I'm elated that he has decided to send this money our way. I'll leave the motivations to you to think about."

Carl O. Snowden, an Annapolis civil rights activist and former mayoral candidate, said Gary showed his political responsiveness when he announced extra help for victims of hate crimes five days after being asked if he was a racist.

On Aug. 20, Gary appeared at a debate sponsored by the NAACP at Anne Arundel Community College.

Snowden, the moderator, asked Gary about an allegation of racism made against him a few weeks earlier by one of his Democratic opponents for county executive, Diane R. Evans. Evans sent out press releases claiming that Gary had been insensitive to blacks by criticizing the performance of two prominent black officials.

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