In a political world

Burlison: Known for relentless campaigning and unusual tactics, an Arundel councilman has inspired and puzzled supporters and foes.

March 26, 2002|By Lynn Anderson and Rona Kobell | Lynn Anderson and Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

Two decades earlier, he'd been ousted from Congress amid scandal. Now, having regained elected office at the local level, Bill D. Burlison was tackling one of his first assignments as chairman of the Anne Arundel County Council.

Addressing inmates graduating from a drug abuse prevention program at the county jail in Glen Burnie, Burlison said: "How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, daddy-o, practice."

He went on to counsel the inmates to "eat vegetables and drink milk," adding: "Why should you listen to me? I'm 70 years old, I've never taken any aspirin, never had a headache. ... Aren't those credentials good enough?"

On a council that has seen its share of unusual behavior -- whispers of eavesdropping and other forms of office snooping, a chaotic meeting that descended into red-faced shouting and finger-wagging -- Burlison might be the most puzzling politician of the bunch.

He is a former six-term congressman who says he has embraced a smaller political stage for the opportunity to work "in the trenches," but he rarely attends community meetings.

He is an effective though unorthodox campaigner who knocks on doors year-round and collects index cards that might list the name of a constituent's dog. But after more than three years on the council, Burlison, a Democrat, has not introduced a bill germane to his fast-growing district in western Anne Arundel County.

And though he is an attorney who has founded two Toastmasters clubs, he is prone to oration that embarrasses his council colleagues and perplexes audiences.

At a campaign fund-raiser last month at a restaurant in Gambrills, Burlison offered the crowd a riddle: Why do politicians wear dark suits?

His answer: "So the media can't tell if they wet their pants."

Once, he broke into Spanish -- "Quiero sus votos, por favor" -- in the middle of a cantankerous council meeting.

And at an inaugural ceremony in 1998, he summed up his thoughts on flag-burners: "I just want to grab them by the stacking swivel and swat their snouts."

Burlison, who turned 71 this month, maintains that some of what he says is taken too literally.

"I have a very subtle sense of humor," he said in an interview. "My wife constantly explains to me that my colleagues and some of my audiences don't know me well enough to understand that my statements are an attempt at dry humor."

Residents of Maryland City, Russett, Odenton and Crownsville say they don't find it humorous that their councilman frequently misses local meetings. They point out that he hasn't introduced one piece of legislation to help them with residential parking enforcement or blighted buildings.

"He doesn't want to win for us," said Zoe Draughon, a Seven Oaks resident and chairwoman of Fort Meade's Restoration Advisory Board. "I think he just enjoys the game [of politics], and we are suffering for it."

Asked why neither he nor his aide attended a jam-packed hearing in January on a long-opposed proposal for a landfill near Odenton, Burlison said he was at a council session that night, adding, "My aide and I have our hands full on the County Council."

Others say he is too closely aligned with County Executive Janet S. Owens. Burlison regularly asks Owens' staff if the county executive backs a bill. If she does, he's almost sure to vote for it.

"I don't think he understands most of the substantive discussion on issues," said County Councilman John J. Klocko III, a Crofton Republican whose district abuts Odenton and who often takes calls from Burlison's constituents. "He votes in accordance with the views of the administration, so there's no need to do research."

Burlison says he's trying to give Owens' administration a voice at council meetings.

"I'm not a rubber stamp," Burlison said. "I am not with [Owens] on every issue, but I am with her on many issues."

Burlison acknowledged that he doesn't focus on matters that he considers "parochial." When asked about his lack of legislative initiative, he said: "I'm not sure introducing a bill is essential to accomplishment."

But he quickly dismissed residents' criticisms, saying: "I don't believe you'll find a councilman who works harder and longer. ... I would challenge anyone who claims I don't do my job."

Burlison's supporters say his service in government -- which includes more than a decade in Congress -- benefits the council.

"I think Bill has a lot of experience, and I feel it comes through in our conversations about politics," said Ann Marie Remillard, a Millersville resident and member of the Anne Arundel County Democratic Central Committee.

In a poll taken last summer, a majority of constituents rated Burlison's job performance as good or excellent. And even his critics say he has, while presiding over council meetings as chairman, brought order to hearings that once meandered.

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