Underdog has high hopes to be sheriff Hardly known Gillen spending little money, avoiding party leaders

October 13, 1998|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

He has raised no money to speak of, wooed hardly anyone in his own party or outside it and is accused of using excessive force on the job, but Mark T. Gillen still hopes to oust incumbent Anne Arundel County Sheriff George F. Johnson IV.

Johnson, 45, much loved by the local Democratic leadership, has spent more than $73,000 on this campaign, buying cable television spots and printing snazzy brochures. Gillen, 36, newly Republican, filed an affidavit promising to raise less than $1,000, so little that if his signs keep disappearing, he won't have money for new ones.

Johnson's reputation for not skipping an event -- its relevance to his office notwithstanding -- is legendary. "We joke that when we go to ribbon-cuttings, it's not official until George Johnson arrives," said County Executive John G. Gary.

By contrast, local Republican leaders don't know who Gillen is and wonder why he hasn't called on them. He concedes that his door-knocking campaign doesn't reach anywhere near the number of voters he would like it to.

Gillen is one of two Baltimore sheriff's deputies who have been accused by an Upper Fells Point woman of ransacking her home and hurting her and her son while attempting to arrest another son. Gillen has been charged with assault and intent to injure, misdemeanors.

The case is scheduled for trial Nov. 17, said Deputy State's Attorney Haven H. Kodeck.

Gillen, a deputy in the city since 1991 and senior deputy in one of the units, said he expects the charges to be dropped. Johnson is shying away from the issue because, he says, "I have focused on me."

Gillen was an Anne Arundel deputy from 1985 through 1989. He and another deputy lost a federal suit they filed over losing their jobs.

Gillen had accused Bill Huggins, then the sheriff, of retaliating against him because Gillen planned to challenge Huggins for his job. Gillen lost his job and the 1990 Democratic primary. He has a malpractice claim pending in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court against an attorney in connection with his job loss.

Johnson's political path was eased by his father, a former chairman of the Democratic State Central Committee, county recreation and parks supervisor and unsuccessful County Council candidate. Huggins, considering a comeback bid, deferred to Johnson.

"My father opened a lot of doors for me. He made it possible for me to meet and greet a lot of people," Johnson said.

That kind of political network shuts out good potential candidates, Gillen said. He switched his party affiliation from Democrat this year so that he could run and because he felt closer to the GOP's smaller-government philosophy.

Gillen is hoping that two strong GOP candidates -- gubernatorial hopeful Ellen R. Sauerbrey and Gary -- combined with disaffected Democrats will give him a boost. He pointed to Johnson's primary tally against his father, Thomas Gillen.

"My father managed to pull 25 percent of the vote from four-year incumbent in a Democratic county," he said. "It's a bad sign for him. It shows he is soft."

Johnson's name recognition, according to his poll, is about 35 percent, but he is buoyed by the fact that less than 1 percent of those who recognized him gave him a negative rating. And Democrats say he will be tough to beat.

Gillen won the endorsement of the Severna Park Republican Women, the only one of 13 GOP clubs in the county he approached, but he generally feels no need to hop from one political event to the next, an attitude resented by party workers and Republicans who worked harder to attain their posts. Even Gary, who heads the local part of the Republican ticket, has no idea who Gillen is.

"It's the same people at all these fund-raisers," Gillen said. "I stuck to the basic grass roots signs and handing out literature."

Gillen has knocked on doors in GOP strongholds, and his name will appear on the party's ballot guide, but he has bothered so little with the county's GOP organization that some influential Republicans are endorsing his opponent.

"The incumbent sheriff, I have to be honest to say, has done a fine job," said Helen Fister, the Republican Central Committee -- chief. "I haven't even seen a piece of literature from this Mr. Gillen candidate."

Incumbent court clerk Robert Duckworth, a dyed-in-the-wool Republican who wears elephant ties, lavished praise on Johnson.

"In the case of Sheriff Johnson, he has done a remarkable job regarding his providing courthouse security and his administration of the sheriff's office," Duckworth said. "I think George Johnson is far more qualified than his opponent for the position."

Johnson, campaigning on his record, is telling voters he has "changed just about everything in the office except for the uniforms we wear." There are new computers, upgraded radios and a new child-support unit, and the cars are no more than 3 years old.

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