Bucking the 2-party system

Mayor: Republican Bob Bruchey works with the Democrat he defeated to bring a state university campus to Hagerstown.

October 11, 1999|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

HAGERSTOWN -- Here in a Maryland city where a Republican can get elected mayor, the mayor is hardly your typical Republican.

Bob Bruchey has little but praise for Democratic Gov. Parris N. Glendening and lists Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend as one of the public officials he most admires. Last year, when other Republicans flocked to the banner of gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey, Bruchey kept his political distance.

This year, he's teamed with the Democrat he beat in 1997 in an effort to bring a new University System of Maryland campus to downtown Hagerstown -- bucking the will of the mostly Republican Washington County legislative delegation.

"I'm probably mayor first, Bob second and Republican third," says Bruchey, a former corrections sergeant at a nearby prison. The two-party system, he says, is "the downfall of democracy."

Bruchey, 41, came out of nowhere two years ago to upset Mayor Steve Sager, a three-term Democrat who now works for the state Department of Housing and Community Development.

One of the main themes of Bruchey's campaign was that Sager was paying too much attention to revitalizing the downtown area of this Western Maryland city of 36,000.

But this year, Bruchey has been working hard to bring the new university campus to the city's rundown central business district -- which has more than its share of empty storefronts and thrift shops.

He and other supporters of the site in the old Baldwin House hotel contend that the campus, which would offer mostly night classes to an estimated 1,240 students, would bring new life to a downtown that begins closing at 4: 30 p.m.

They say the city location is more in keeping with the spirit of the state's Smart Growth law than a competing site along Interstate 70 in Allegheny Energy Co.'s Friendship Technology Park.

The decision on where to locate the campus lies with Glendening, author of the Smart Growth law. The governor, who toured the two sites last month, is expected to decide this month.

If the governor selects the downtown location, it will be a significant coup for a mayor who never held another public office. The I-70 site has the backing of influential Republican state Sen. Donald F. Munson, university system officials and the Washington County Commissioners.

Hagerstown leaders say Bruchey has been a pleasant surprise since he handily defeated Sager in a low-turnout election that was notable for its lack of personal rancor.

"We were friends before and, for that matter, during and after," says Sager, who acknowledged that he helped Bruchey with plans for Baldwin House before being told that as a state employee, he should not take sides.

Sager says his successor is doing a good job. "I've had some pleasant surprises."

Bruchey describes Sager as "a great mayor" who had run out of new ideas after 12 years. To avoid that, Bruchey plans to limit himself to two terms in the $28,000-a-year part-time job -- "long enough for anyone to see things begun and to fruition."

Bruchey, who says he had always been interested in politics, supported Sager when he first ran in 1984 but later became disillusioned. In 1993, Bruchey considered a challenge but made way for a friend to run on the Republican ticket. By 1997, he felt he had to run.

He recalls waking early one morning and going downtown to file his candidacy papers, leaving behind a note to his wife, Susan, asking, "How does Mrs. Mayor sound to you?"

Crime-fighting strategy

Among the new ideas Bruchey has pushed is a change in the city's strategy for fighting crime. As a former Army MP and the son of a longtime city police officer, the mayor sees law enforcement as his area of expertise.

An admirer of New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, Bruchey has pushed the Police Department to adopt a "zero-tolerance" policy of strictly enforcing even minor laws in an effort to deter a persistent drug-dealing problem.

With his City Council allies, Bruchey sought the creation of a Street Crimes Unit. When officers began to be diverted from the unit to other purposes, he brought pressure on the police chief, who resigned. A new chief, Baltimore Maj. Arthur R. Smith, has been hired to take over next month.

Under Hagerstown's charter, the office of mayor is weak compared with the same position in Baltimore. Without strong support from the council, the city's top elected official can quickly become excluded. But council members of both parties say Bruchey has worked effectively with them.

"He is as open and approachable as any politician I'm aware of," says Councilman Lewis Metzner, a Democrat. Other council members are equally complimentary.

Bruchey stays in touch with constituents by keeping office hours Monday evenings and by walking the streets of the city -- sometimes late at night through the drug-infested "Hot Spots" area. The Hot Spots program, a crime-fighting initiative spearheaded by Townsend, is one of the reasons Bruchey's a fan of the lieutenant governor.

`A progressive Republican'

"I'm a progressive Republican who understands that if you let parties divide you, you will always be divided," he says.

Mark Boyer, a member of the Washington County Republican Central Committee, says he hasn't heard grumbling about Bruchey among the GOP rank-and-file.

"While Bruchey may not be a hard-line conservative like a lot of Republicans down here, he certainly has shown an ability to get the job done," Boyer says.

One promise Bruchey has not been able to keep is to make the mayor's office his full-time job. Married with three sons, one grown, he works as vice president of an Internet auto parts company.

So far no formidable candidate has emerged as a likely challenger to his re-election in 2001. If he were to win and served one more term, he would be 47 when he leaves City Hall.

He says he would probably be interested in continuing in public office at that time. But when asked which office, he hesitates.

"I'll save that for another interview," he says.

Pub Date: 10/11/99

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