Gray to lead national counties group

Council chairman hopes new post helps him aid constituents

July 19, 1999|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

This month, C. Vernon Gray's favorite song might be "Meet Me in St. Louis," though he'll happily settle for Chuck Berry's rendition of "Johnny B. Goode."

The peripatetic political science professor and Howard County Council chairman is scheduled to become president of the National Association of Counties (NACo) at the group's annual convention in St. Louis. Berry, the septuagenarian duck-walking guitarist, will headline the "Red White and Blues, 2000" inaugural gala tomorrow in the ballroom of the Regal Riverfront Hotel.

For Gray, who worked years for this, enduring criticism from local Republicans that helped cost him the NACo vice presidency on his first try, in 1996, the celebration that started Friday shows his brand of politics works.

"Politics is people. You don't need legislation to get things done. You have to know who to call," he says, telling how he spent most of one Christmas Day arranging to get a birth certificate for the daughter of someone who was leaving the country on vacation the next day. He got it, says Gray.

Names like Clinton, Gore, Mandela and Jesse Jackson drop casually from his lips; a NACo-sponsored trip to China is scheduled for October; and he has made weekly trips around the country.

"There are three kinds of people," he says. "Those who watch what happens, those who make things happen and those who ask what happened. I like to make things happen. You try to make a difference."

Gray, serving his fifth and final council term, won't reveal his political plans for 2002.

But Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a longtime Gray ally who once was Maryland Association of Counties president, says the NACo presidency can only help.

"As a practical matter, my involvement did help considerably in my run for governor," Glendening says.

For Gray, a dapper, soft-spoken Columbia resident, involvement in NACo is the way to broaden his list of national and international contacts and help influence issues that come home to Howard County.

They include such issues as stopping unfunded federal mandates, year 2000 computer fixes and getting more money for programs in juvenile crime prevention, social services, Medicare/Medicaid reform, or highway construction and noise barriers that affect most of the 3,000 counties in the United States.

Ideas from elsewhere

Larry E. Naake, NACo executive director, says the group's president also keeps in touch with similar, parallel groups such as the National Governors Association, the Council of State Governments, the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities.

Gray says many of his ideas for legislation affecting Howard County have come from his association with NACo -- such as controlling smoking in restaurants or collecting voluntary donations of jurors' stipends to build a $30,000 fund for the county's foster children.

Broader impact

"My going to NACo conferences has been postgraduate studies for me," Gray says, adding that he has used his affiliation and contacts to pursue another goal: opening the doors of more governments to black entrepreneurs.

"I can have a greater impact [in NACo] on some things I'm trying to do than as a county executive," he says, explaining that that was one reason he passed up the riskier chance to run for the county's top office last year.

He ran for re-election instead for another term. Only county officials can be NACo officials.

Although NACo's presidency is a part-time job that doesn't usually attract much publicity, it can have its moments.

Five years ago, NACo President Randall Franke, a commissioner from Marion County, Ore., found himself at the center of Washington's partisan battle over the budget -- a contest that forced the government to shut down for a few days after congressional Republicans refused to approve the Clinton administration's budget.

Host of NACo's legislative conference luncheon in Washington, which featured then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Franke found himself wrestling for the microphone and control of the luncheon when bus loads of protesters burst into the room.

That experience was a new one for the small-county Republican, who says he learned a lot in that year -- when a series of personal firsts ranged from introducing the president of the United States to speaking before more than 5,000 people.

"It was an absolutely wonderful experience for me. It really stretched and pushed me to expand, to do things I didn't think I could do," Franke says.

`We're proud of him'

Maryland officeholders say that although Gray's new post probably won't bring direct benefits to Howard County, it's a major honor that will have indirect effects.

"I'm absolutely tickled. It's what he wanted, and he'll do a great job. We're proud of him," Glendening says.

"It's one of the most prestigious positions in local government. There's tremendous networking with senators and congressmen," says C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, Baltimore County executive and former Maryland Association of Counties president.

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