Skinner, holding no cards, manages a winning hand

Powerless to check jail or redistricting, yet on top in Towson

May 31, 2001|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Nine months ago his constituents were ready to write his political obituary, but after Baltimore County Councilman Wayne M. Skinner orchestrated the defeat of the county jail expansion Tuesday, he is suddenly Towson's favorite son.

From the moment plans to expand the Baltimore County Detention Center were announced last summer, Skinner's constituents were up in arms, but for months he didn't oppose the project. His efforts, he said, would be futile and only alienate the county executive and the rest of the council.

Instead it was his constituents who were ready to freeze him out.

"I wouldn't have thought" he could be re-elected, Cathi Forbes, an anti-jail activist and co-founder of the Coalition for Open Government, said yesterday. "I feel like for the people who were talking about it, it was a big issue, and they felt like he had not stood up for his constituents. Personally, I felt like I had no voice."

In the past week, however, Skinner has risen from his political ashes, using the very evidence of his weakness on the council to force colleagues to vote his way. In the process, he's solidified his position among his constituents.

Skinner's troubles began in July when County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger announced that he would solve jail overcrowding by doubling the jail's capacity over 20 years. By August, Skinner, a first-term Republican from Towson, was telling his enraged constituents that he couldn't do anything about the expansion and wasn't going to try.

Skinner, 46, has been a state government employee for years, but it was his decades of community activism that prompted him to run for County Council. He was president of the Towson-Loch Raven Community Council, a member of the planning board, and a volunteer with several committees and associations.

When the jail dispute began, he tried to tell the activists he now represented how the council works:

He didn't have the power to stop the jail expansion, even though it was in his district. The other six councilmen would never help him because they didn't want a new jail in their districts. And if he made a ruckus, the administration would stop working with him.

Skinner reversed course after his constituents mounted a campaign to defeat a bond issue involving the jail, and he made several efforts to stop the expansion. He always lost, 6-1.

Then came redistricting.

Five council members agreed on a plan that preserves their constituencies at the expense of the other two, Skinner and Vincent J. Gardina, a Democrat from Perry Hall, whose districts were merged to force an eventual showdown.

Worse for Skinner, the plan would split Towson into three districts, a move community groups detest but which Skinner was powerless to stop.

"It's a very political process ... but actually I was shut out of most of it. I tried talking to people and couldn't even do that," he said.

But in a budget hearing just after Skinner first saw the redistricting map, he made a motion to cut the $70 million for the jail, causing what he calls "the Kodak moment."

Suddenly, Kevin Kamenetz, the Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat whose new district would include part of Towson, kicked under the table at T. Bryan McIntire, the north county-Owings Mills Republican whose new district would include another part.

McIntire seconded the motion, Kamenetz offered his third; the motion was one vote shy of victory.

"I don't think they understood what was underneath those numbers until then," Skinner said. "They about had a heart attack."

Over the next few days, Skinner met with Forbes and other members of the Coalition for Open Government, and they put together a plan. Because Gardina would also have to campaign in Towson if he seeks re-election next year, they figured he could be swayed.

On Friday, Skinner introduced a budget amendment to eliminate jail funding, and the coalition recruited residents to blitz Gardina, Kamenetz and McIntire with phone calls, e-mails and faxes.

On Tuesday, despite lobbying by Ruppersberger, Skinner got his four votes and his biggest victory.

"He received some criticism ... and it really did light a fire in his stomach," said Donald R. Wright, president of the West Towson Neighborhood Association. "I think the way he did handle this was just superb."

Skinner chalks the win up to taking advantage of an opportunity, but Towson activists are now looking at him to prove his political success was more than a fluke as they fight the redistricting plan at a public hearing Monday night and at the June 18 vote.

"I think Wayne came off smelling like a rose," said Dick Parsons, vice president of the West Towson Neighborhood Association. "I think he's going to command much more support from the community ... and it may well mean he'll command more respect and be listened to by the other councilmen since he was able to pull this off."

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