Elections overseer has vote of confidence Doris J. Suter draws on experience, humor in a demanding job

October 19, 1998|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF

Since Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House and County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger was a teen-ager, Doris J. Suter has been dogging votes in Baltimore County.

Over the years, she has seen the county's political tide ebb and flow from Democratic machine days when the east side ruled to Republicans Spiro T. Agnew's and Ellen R. Sauerbrey's rides to the top.

As caretaker of 357,534 voters in 187 precincts, this 66-year-old grandmotherly administrator has overcome personal obstacles to run the state's second-largest elections office with finesse and lots of down-to-earth humor.

She answers nagging phone calls, absorbs criticism, files ballots and makes occasional lunch runs -- even as her staff gears up for another likely dramatic finish in the Nov. 3 governor's race.

Four years ago, Sauerbrey won in the county by 32,265 votes, and Suter's office shook off allegations of voter fraud that centered on absentee ballots.

"The lawyers were waiting outside the morning after the election," she recalls about the aftermath of the 1994 contest for Maryland's top political job. "They stayed about 10 days, and we redid almost everything -- checked out all the alleged dead people right in front of them. After it was over, they sent us floral arrangements and candy to thank us."

This time, there are more registered voters to keep track of and, Suter predicts, four times the number of absentee votes to count after Election Day.

It's a yeoman task, performed by a close-knit staff of 17, mostly women, who at times wear matching T-shirts and kibitz over the office intercom. Their photographs together -- including a portrait taken on the boardwalk in Ocean City -- fill the office walls.

As the election approaches, the staff is busy preparing a sample ballot, which will be mailed to every voter in the county. "We work 12-hour days -- and even longer as an election approaches," Suter says. "Every time they build a street in Baltimore County, we have to know where it is -- we once walked through a swamp to find precinct lines in the 9th District."

In addition, election officials must verify signatures on all petitions for liquor license renewals and conduct voter registration drives.

"They all know each other's job and can step in and take over," said Marjorie J. Neuman, the lone Republican on the three-member county elections board. "There is no resentment in that office."

A registered Democrat who by law votes by absentee ballot, Suter oversees a budget of $2.2 million and is also training 2,400 poll judges for the general election.

Known simply as "Dor," she was appointed to the office in 1959 by Democrat James A. Pine Sr., the powerful Baltimore County state senator who ran an east-side political machine.

Since then, the high school dropout, who married at age 15 and became a mother a year later, has become an institution. She credits her success to a commitment to reading every book available on Maryland's election laws.

"Doris is effective because she has made sure there are good people in her office, and she's not afraid of change," said state Del. John S. Arnick, a Democrat from Dundalk first elected in 1967. "She always voices her opinion -- even when she thought things were wrong."

Linda Lamone, Maryland's administrator of elections, says: "You have to be somebody who can work under extreme pressure and get the job done, and she's very much able to do that. She always has something nice to say when things aren't going well."

When she divorced shortly after her daughter was born, Suter began to suffer from rheumatoid arthritis. Yet she dug in and started working Dundalk's election precincts with her parents.

"I started as a gofer at the Wise Avenue Volunteer Fire Department," she says. "It was exciting -- it was old-time politics with parades, cow bells and parties. I miss it."

Suter, who later married a county police officer, adopted and raised her grandson after her daughter died following a seizure. Suffering from arthritis and other health problems, Suter underwent a rare heart operation, an aortic valve transplant, in 1995.

But she vows to remain working until her 40th anniversary as a state employee -- a milestone she won't reach for five years because she temporarily lost her political patronage job for a few years in the early 1960s.

"She's so good at what she does during the day, she gets absent-minded at night at home," says her 29-year-old son Rick, who works in the county's Register of Wills office.

With Suter at the helm, Neuman says, elections supervisors never worry. She earns a salary of $48,000 -- significantly less than her counterparts in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, who are covered by their counties' merit systems.

Suter says she has always enjoyed working with politicians.

"I get great joy out of working with the candidates," she said. "I get to know them all on a first-name basis. But it really does hurt when they lose."

Pub Date: 10/19/98

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