Withheld school money cost Gary vital support Huge campaign fund couldn't offset image, perceived priorities

November 05, 1998|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary's warfare with school officials over money had been giving him high negative ratings among county parents since February 1997. Even his supporters were nervous that a Scrooge-like image might lead to his defeat Tuesday.

But he had a chance to save his political career by acting like Santa in May.

The Board of Education told Gary it needed an additional $9 million to prevent painful cuts, and the county auditor told him he could easily afford to give the board the money because a booming stock market would result in an income tax surplus of more than twice that amount.

Gary said he wanted to give the schools the money but decided against it when County Financial Officer John Hammond advised him to keep the cash unspent for possible use in future construction projects.

"That was surely a fatal mistake," said Dan Nataf, a professor who studies local politics at Anne Arundel Community College. "That decision launched a jihad by the county's teachers, who thought that it confirmed the worst things about Gary's character."

Riding a wave of public distaste for the cuts in popular educational programs that followed, Democrat Janet S. Owens won the county executive race easily Tuesday to become the first challenger to defeat an incumbent for that position.

Owens won despite an almost 5-to-1 disadvantage in fund raising and her lack of support from any Democratic elected leader before she rose from obscurity to win the primary.

Whether Hammond's advice caused a rift between the county's most powerful Republican and his top financial official is unclear. Hammond did not attend an Oct. 26 news conference at which Gary tried to control the political damage by giving the schools an additional $6 million just before the election.

"Hammond wouldn't spend a nickel if he had a choice," Gary said. "But it wasn't his decision; it was mine."

Hammond said yesterday that he felt that the county couldn't afford to give the schools the $9 million in May because county officials didn't know until October how much surplus tax revenue the county had. As it turned out, the county had a $22 million surplus.

"Hindsight is 20-20," Hammond said. "But budgets have to be put together ahead of time. That's the nature of the beast."

The Scrooge theory was one of several offered yesterday to explain Owens' victory over Gary, whose $648,000 in campaign contributions broke local records for county executive races.

The race affected more than the county executive job. The voters also swept from office two Gary allies on the County Council, William C. Mulford II and Bert L. Rice, changing it from a 4-3 Republican majority to a 5-2 Democratic majority.

"They certainly linked Bill Mulford and me to John Gary, and I think we all got tainted with the school system issue," said Rice, a former council chairman who lost to Democrat Bill Burlison.

Other theories offered to explain Gary's loss included:

The election was a referendum on Gary's character, and voters found him too belligerent because he picked fights with several top county officials.

Gary's backing of a 54,000-seat auto racetrack in Pasadena and a mall with more than 1 million square feet of space west of Baltimore-Washington International Airport convinced voters that he and his allies were doing favors for developers.

The Republican Party was split, with popular former County Council Chairwoman Diane R. Evans bolting in April because of Gary's autocratic style and urging her supporters to vote for Owens.

Pat Gonzales, president of Mason-Dixon Campaign Polling and Strategy of Annapolis, said he conducted a poll in February 1997 that found 23 percent of the more than 800 people questioned countywide would vote to re-elect Gary.

"I don't think I've ever seen a negative rating that high in a county executive," said Gonzales, an Owens adviser. "People really didn't like him."

"The race was John Gary vs. John Gary, and John Gary lost. He just had so many negatives with the public," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat.

Dennis Callahan, mayor of Annapolis from 1985 to 1989 and an adviser to the Owens campaign, said Owens won because she made several smart and brave decisions.

She wasn't frightened by Gary's record-breaking campaign fund, several potential Democratic candidates were, and she didn't listen to the advice of the county's Democratic leaders, who urged her not to run, Callahan said.

"Janet Owens offered the voters a distinctive choice," said Susie Jablinske, president of the county teachers association.

"She offered civility, improved education and slow growth. Gary was offering none of this."

Pub Date: 11/05/98

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