Politician 'by accident' prefers life on the farm Commissioner Dell uses rural ties to shape agenda

November 05, 1998|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

Three days before the election that would decide his political future, Carroll Commissioner Donald I. Dell ducked a planned campaign swing through populous South Carroll to spend a day on his Westminster dairy farm.

His father's buggy and a pair of antique Oliver tractors held more appeal than shaking hands with strangers. It was a choice many might consider odd for a man who squeaked through the September primary by 14 votes.

But Dell, 73, never really wanted to be a politician.

"I got into politics by accident. The only thing I ever wanted to be was a farmer, like my father and his father before him," said Dell. "I don't like being put on parade like a peacock."

Dell got involved in politics when friends in the local Farm Bureau persuaded him to run for county commissioner in 1982. Dell, who had never held public office, failed to make it through the primary.

He ran again in 1986. This time he lost in the general election.

But 1990 proved to be his year. Dell's slogan during the race, "Keep It Country," won him a seat on the three-member board.

Dell placed third in the general election Tuesday, capturing 18 percent of the vote. Robin Bartlett Frazier and Julia Walsh Gouge were the top vote-getters.

During his tenure, Dell's ties to the farming community have helped shape his political agenda. He has emerged as a strong advocate of property rights and agricultural preservation.

"People moving here don't really understand what property rights are all about. They have the feeling that whatever they see out their window should never be changed. My feeling is, it's none of their business what their neighbor does with his land," said Dell, whose agricultural roots in Carroll County date from the late 18th century.

Dell's deep roots in Carroll provide the commissioner with a sense of continuity, a private well from which he often draws when making difficult decisions.

John Nicholas Dell was the first Dell to settle in Carroll County. Today, two centuries and nine generations later, nearly half a page of Dells are listed in the local telephone directory, "and we're all related, though most are distant cousins," said Dell, who retired from farming after winning the 1990 election.

The operation of his 400-acre farm is in the hands of his sons, Roger and Greg. Both have built homes on the ridge overlooking their father's modest three-bedroom rancher, built the season he turned 23 and wed Leona Frock. The two have been married 50 years.

"It seems the only time I milk the cows is Christmas morning now that I'm low man on the totem pole," said Dell, whose large calloused hands are lined from long hours working in the sun. The hands are Dell's most notable feature and seem too big for his slight frame. He stands a few hairs shy of 5 feet 6 inches.

These days, Dell spends what little free time he has restoring antique tractors. Over the years, he has bought 17 of the bright green farming machines. Several date to the 1940s, at a time when John Deere tractors were looked upon with disdain.

"When the Olivers were popular, the John Deeres were nothing," said Dell. "They ran on two cylinders and went pop-pop."

His collection had modest beginnings -- a 1920s buggy and a 1947 Oliver, both inherited from his father.

"One of my earliest memories is of sitting in this buggy as my mother drove the family over to my grandfather's farm in Gamber," said Dell. That was in 1924, before many of the county's roads were paved.

For a man with deep roots in Carroll's agrarian past, addressing issues of development is often a challenging task. In the past 20 years, Carroll has doubled in population to 150,000, making growth the most divisive issue in the county. In the past three years, the commissioners have twice raised taxes to keep public facilities and services on par with development.

In 1995, Dell voted to raise the county's piggyback income tax to 58 percent of the state income tax, up from 50 percent, to build several schools to alleviate crowding.

Though he was criticized for that vote, Dell supported the second tax increase a year later. In 1996, he voted to raise the property tax rate from $2.32 to $2.65 per $100 assessed valuation to prevent cuts in county services such as fire protection and libraries.

His stance on those issues cost him votes in this year's primary, he acknowledges, but given the chance, Dell said he would not change the way he voted.

"Donald is a man who has the courage to stand by his convictions. Though we may not always agree, I have to say that Donald always supports what he does with a well-thought-out position," said New Windsor Mayor Jack A. Gullo Jr., who took office in 1993.

In his third term, Dell said he will try to persuade the board to devote a lot of time to the day-to-day business of the county. Dell has been known to become involved in the smallest of details, down to the decor of his office.

"But don't ask me what color I chose, because I couldn't tell you," said Dell of his teal-toned office. "I'm colorblind."

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