A tree falls in the forest and new seedlings sprout

COMMENT

November 08, 1998|By Brian Sullam

ANNE ARUNDEL'S political landscape looks like a forest that has been clear cut and bulldozed.

No only are some major political landmarks gone from the county, but some new ones have been unearthed.

During the past four years, County Executive John G. Gary was the tallest tree in the forest. He cast a shadow that touched every corner.

His style of Republicanism -- fiscally conservative, socially conservative and skeptical of government power -- set the tone and the agenda for the other members of the county's GOP.

Mr. Gary was able to get most of what he wanted out of a compliant council. The State House delegation, dominated by Republicans, was slightly more independent but rarely undertook any initiative that he did not approve of.

But Mr. Gary's influence extended beyond the Republican Party. Rather than establishing its own identity during his term as county executive, the Democratic opposition defined itself primarily by contrasting its positions to those of Mr. Gary.

On Election Day, the county's voters felled Mr. Gary.

His political future is pulpwood. Mr. Gary said on Election Night that he would not run for public office again.

Evans toppled

Another large GOP tree in the forest was District 5 Councilwoman Diane R. Evans, who also chaired the council for three years. But she is no longer a Republican.

To challenge Mr. Gary, she switched parties and became a Democrat. It would appear that Ms. Evans is likely to remain a Democrat.

The only elected Republican of countywide stature is Robert R. Neall, a senator from District 33. Right-wing Republicans detest Mr. Neall, county executive from 1990 to 1994, and tried to unseat him in the primary this year.

If Mr. Neall becomes the county GOP's titular leader, it will be difficult to close the party's ranks behind him. Many of the conservative members of the party so resent him that they won't work with him to rebuild for the next county election.

The Democrats are not without their problems.

The victory of Janet S. Owens astonished the party's top elected officials. Last spring, the county's elected Democrats, led by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., threw their weight behind Ms. Evans' candidacy.

They subscribed to the conventional wisdom that Ms. Evans had greater name recognition, could attract more contributions and was the strongest Democratic candidate to unseat Mr. Gary.

Rank-and-file Democratic voters and public employee unions ignored conventional wisdom and the party's elected leadership and gave Ms. Owens her primary election victory.

The same coalition of forces helped achieve victory on Election Day, and Ms. Owens is indebted to them.

How she copes with the demands of the teachers and other public employee unions may be her biggest challenge. Mr. Gary ignored them and was parsimonious when it came to negotiating across-the-board raises. Many of these political supporters may expect her to reward them during the next round of negotiations.

Ms. Owens is not so indebted to other elected Democratic officials. Although all the Democratic office holders quickly rallied behind Ms. Owens for the general election, it would appear that she carried them rather than the other way around.

Ms. Owens, by virtue of her office, becomes the head of the county party. She controls more patronage than any other official in the county and has to fill dozens of positions.

All the Democratic officials who turned their backs to her last spring and supported Ms. Evans are now interested in being Ms. Owens' best friend.

How Ms. Owens handles these officials may set the tone for the early days of her administration.

If she can fill slots in her administration with appointments that satisfy the elected Democratic establishment, she is likely to maintain party solidarity.

Legislative cohesion

Keeping the State House delegation content may also enable her to achieve for Anne Arundel what C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger accomplished for Baltimore County during the past legislative session. In the past four years, the county did not have a cohesive legislative delegation. As a result, the county was not as successful as others in securing state aid for its projects.

The last time the county had a Democratic county executive and council was 1990, the last year of O. James Lighthizer's administration.

In addition, Ms. Owens also has to deal with a County Council that has only one returning member, District 7 Councilman John C. Klocko III, who happens to be a Republican.

Sorting out the politics of this neophyte council may take some time. The leadership has to be selected, and a legislative agenda developed. Ms. Owens will have to be a skillful gardener to get this landscape back in order.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 11/08/98

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