John Gary's words speak louder than his actions


September 27, 1998|By Brian Sullam

WHO IS the real John G. Gary? The hot-headed loudmouth who picks fights with school superintendents and Circuit Court judges, or the practical government executive who supports some of the most innovative welfare reform programs in the state, if not the nation?

In the next five weeks, Mr. Gary will have to redefine himself for Anne Arundel County voters if he wants a second term.

Without referring to polling data, I'd be willing to bet that Mr. Gary's negatives are rising.

After battling for five months over the education budget, many county residents identify Mr. Gary as a combative bully who eschews negotiation, rather than as an able manager who has maintained county services even as tax revenues have been frozen in place.

The Glendening problem

In many ways, Mr. Gary, a Republican, suffers from a problem similar to that of Maryland's Democratic governor, Parris N. Glendening. Most people don't seem to have specific complaints about his policies. They just don't like his personality.

Mr. Gary's accomplishments include reforming the county's pension system, building a much-needed second detention center, creating a sensible general development plan, increasing education spending, adding more than 100 officers to the county police force and generally maintaining a well-run government that provides residents with a high level of service.

Just as the governor's achievements -- attempting to slow sprawl, raising education standards, reforming Baltimore's school system and cutting taxes -- often get overlooked, county voters seem to discount Mr. Gary's accomplishments. He has run this county with enlightened pragmatism and has made sound fiscal decisions, yet many still recall his reputation in the General Assembly as a narrow-minded ideologue.

He has only himself to blame. In too many instances, his words have spoken louder than his actions.

As a state legislator, he called homosexuals "queers" and referred to a judicial nominee as a "nasty bastard."

Uncontrollable urges

Like another political leader much in the headlines, Mr. Gary hasn't been able to refrain from making the same mistake. Many hoped that as county executive, he would control his combative urges.

But he can't seem to help himself. Mr. Gary has an ingrained habit of crassly attributing the most base political motives to anyone with whom he disagrees.

Last May, for example, he launched a personal salvo against school Superintendent Carol S. Parham. She requested a funding increase he felt the county couldn't afford. Rather than simply state that fact, Mr. Gary alleged that Dr. Parham was doing the bidding of the school board as a quid pro quo for having renewed her contract. He also lobbed allegations about wasteful spending in the system and called for a state audit. It was all unsubstantiated.

In the primary election two weeks ago, Janet S. Owens upset county councilwoman Diane R. Evans with the help of the teachers' union in the Democratic primary for county executive. The next day, Mr. Gary held a "love fest" with Dr. Parham and school board Chairwoman Carlesa Finney. He conceded he was wrong and said he would appropriate more money for schools.

Eating crow

It wasn't the first time Mr. Gary had to eat crow. Last fall, when county Police Chief Larry W. Tolliver and County Attorney Phillip F. Scheibe got into a public row over the handling of seized cars with State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee, Mr. Gary felt compelled to weigh in.

When Circuit Court Judge Clayton R. Greene Jr. refused to descend into the gutter and participate in the argument, Mr. Gary accused the judge of protecting Assistant State's Attorney Trevor A. Kiessling Jr. because the assistant prosecutor was a political supporter of the judge's. It was a baseless charge that Mr. Gary had to retract.

Rather than keep his sharp tongue in check, Mr. Gary spouts off without thinking about the consequences of his words. This pattern of bitter accusations and contrite retractions obscures his accomplishments and provides political opponents with ammunition.

Mr. Gary has at times been very successful in getting his way because of his skills of persuasion. Rather than attacking opponents, Mr. Gary should focus his energies on making his case.

bTC In the recent school funding argument, the facts were on Mr. Gary's side. School spending has increased under his administration. The $454.2 million allocated for schools this year is $14.1 million more than last year. But the sound and fury of his denunciations drowned out this positive.

Nearly four years ago, this newspaper opined that the then-rookie county executive should remember to "count to 10, then speak."

That advice is still sound.

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

Pub Date: 9/27/98

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