At age 80, Walters stumps vigorously Sheriff candidate gets token backing from party leaders

October 06, 1998|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

Every morning about 7, G. Russell Walters puts on his favorite straw hat, climbs into his sport utility vehicle and drives out to a neighborhood in Howard County.

At age 80, he's running energetically as a Democrat for county sheriff, hoping his service as county chief of police from 1969 to 1975 will impress voters.

"I know I have the qualifications, and I've been around sheriffs' departments all my life," says Walters, a North Laurel resident who was also a state trooper.

But the county population has more than doubled since his tenure as police chief, and few seem to remember him -- not even Democratic Party leaders.

"To be honest, I don't know that much about him," says Carole Fisher, chairwoman of the county Democratic Party. "I hate to be vague, but I've only met him once or twice before."

Party leaders had hoped someone else would run for the office, which is being vacated by Sheriff Michael A. Chiuchiolo after two terms. No one, however, stepped forward. Now that Walters is their nominee -- the only Democrat running for sheriff in the September primary, he received 13,000 votes -- the party is giving him token support.

The fact that he was chief of police is seen by some as an asset, but by others as a liability, because he held the post so long ago. After leaving law enforcement, Walters worked in the private security field.

Chuck Cave, his 61-year-old Republican opponent, worked as a state trooper under Walters' command in the early 1960s when Walters was on the state police. Cave says he was surprised to hear his one-time boss was running.

"I knew that Russ has put his time into law enforcement, but he hasn't put time in since the mid-70s," he says. "There's an awful lot that's happened since then. Russ might be a little out of touch with law enforcement today. It's not like it was 25 years ago. I'm not sure I know why he wants to be sheriff now all these years later."

Even former Howard Police Chief James N. Robey, who started in the department when Walters was chief, and who is now the Democratic nominee for county executive, says he's perplexed.

"I can't begin to understand why he'd want to be sheriff," Robey says. "But he's certainly putting his heart and soul into the campaign, because I see him everywhere. He's working very hard at it."

Walters' campaign has cost slightly more than $2,000 and has been limited to knocking on doors and handing out literature in neighborhoods, parking lots and shopping centers.

He prefers to work fast and alone when meeting potential voters, taking care not to be too much of a bother. He works for a few hours in the morning , and often goes to another site late in the afternoon.

Some voters say they haven't followed the sheriff's race very closely and aren't quite sure what the sheriff does. Walters himself became flustered recently when asked to describe the duties of the sheriff's office.

He listed some duties -- "they oversee the security at the %J courthouse and run the metal detector there" -- while consulting a six-page document he's written.

As he examined the document, Walters remarked that he doesn't "want to talk too much off the top of my head, because it's hard to say everything the sheriff does. If I'm elected, I'm going to need to spend some time and that kind of thing and think long and hard if I'm going to make these kind of tough administrative decisions."

The duties of the sheriff -- among them providing security for the Circuit Court, serving court and landlord/tenant papers and criminal warrants and transporting prisoners to other jurisdictions in the state -- have increased in the past 30 years, as has the size of the sheriff's office.

Established 147 years ago, the Howard office now has 50 employees with an annual budget of nearly $2 million. The sheriff is paid $50,052.

Born in Savage in 1918, Walters graduated from Elkridge High School and joined the Navy, serving in Europe and the South Pacific during World War II.

After the war, Walters became a state trooper, working for 22 years before retiring as a sergeant major in 1969. He was appointed Howard County police chief that year by Omar J. Jones, Howard's first county executive, and held the $14,000-a-year job for six years.

Walters says he then worked as security director at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, and held security jobs at Southern Maryland Hospital in Clinton and at Citizens National Bank in Howard County. He's done some consulting with private security companies in the past few years, he says.

He has been married for 52 years and has two sons, Gregory and Barry, who are police officers in Prince George's County.

Though Walters' age and lack of recent law enforcement experience might be seen as disadvantages to some, they don't matter to supporters like Thomas Lloyd, an Ellicott City attorney and the county solicitor when Walters was police chief.

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