9 terms, no regrets for councilman

Unseated: Mount Airy official's gruffness won't be missed, but most say he always had the town's interests at heart.

May 14, 2002|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

R. Delaine Hobbs left Mount Airy's Town Hall a contented man May 6, although he had plenty of reason not to be satisfied.

That night, he had presided over a Town Council meeting -- his final meeting of a 36-year tenure, it turned out, because of his 13-vote loss in that day's election.

Hobbs' famous temper could have been boiling at the thought of losing to someone who wasn't yet born the first time he won. Instead, he felt relief and satisfaction -- relief at the thought of future Monday evenings on the lawn mower, in front of the television or with his wife, and satisfaction at the memories of an accomplished tenure.

He shook a few hands and spent the next few hours driving around town, picking up his campaign signs. That was it; the longest political career in Carroll County -- and one of the longest in Maryland -- was over.

"I think a man should find a way to serve the community he lives in, and I've done that for a long time, so I have no regrets at all," Hobbs said Thursday morning, sitting behind the counter at his antiques store downtown.

The nine-term councilman, 67, has watched the town grow from a farm village of 600 to an increasingly popular bedroom community for Washington and Baltimore with more than 6,000 residents. Amid that change, he has never been a bland figure. Possessed of a commanding voice and little patience for perceived disrespect, he has long been known as the councilman who would shout down critics.

With that reputation, some see him as the symbol of an old Mount Airy that has little use for input from the thousands of new residents who have crowded in during the past 30 years. But few are better or more interested listeners, said many who know Hobbs from his time on the council.

Laurie V. Hager, who served on the council with Hobbs for the past four years, was a community activist when she first encountered him in the early 1990s. She had heard all the rumors and expected him to yell at her or dismiss her as another uppity "darling." Instead, after listening to her well-researched arguments, he said, "You know, she's right."

"You could have heard a pin drop in that room," Hager said.

Though Hager hasn't always agreed with Hobbs, she considers herself a fan.

"He really did have a propensity to listen to anyone who came before council and a willingness to jump into whatever needed to get done for the town," she said. "Like everyone else, I occasionally wanted to strangle him when he'd let his buttons get pushed and that word `dumb' would come flying out, but the good so outweighs the bad."

Hobbs swears that he has never called anyone dumb in a council meeting, although he allows that he might have called a few ideas dumb. "If someone came in showing disrespect, I was always prepared to show disrespect back," he said.

Some who have been lashed by his sharp words find it hard to forgive him, although most declined to say much after his defeat.

"His time is over now, so let's move on," said Ben Gue, a 48-year resident who worked against Hobbs in the election.

"He was quite rude," said Susan Cole, who lives outside town and jousted with Hobbs over school crowding issues. "He did not like anybody opposing anything [the council] said."

Many veteran opponents, however, said they appreciated Hobbs despite his sometimes gruff manner.

Michael Boyer, a former planning commission member who also lost in last week's council election, said he is glad to see new blood on the council.

"But Delaine has been a good man in town," Boyer said. "I never thought he did anything but act in what he thought were our best interests."

A third-generation town resident whose father was a Main Street barber, Hobbs first ran for council in 1966, essentially on a dare. The then-lumber salesman attended a nominating meeting with his friend Ray Grimes and nominated Grimes out of "the clear blue sky." Grimes quickly returned the favor. In the election, Hobbs won and Grimes didn't.

The town had stopped growing then, he said, with the absence of a public sewer system limiting the potential for business development. But Hobbs helped lead the effort to add the sewer system, working with state leaders to secure federal grants for the project.

He kept running for re-election after that project was completed because, he said, "there was always something that needed to be finished."

Hobbs became the town's resident expert on water, a role he staunchly defended in recent years as annual water restrictions invited widespread criticism. He said recent improvements he guided would eliminate Mount Airy's water distribution problems.

Contrary to popular opinion, he hasn't minded changes in town. "That's part of life," he said.

Although he said he will fade quickly from public view, he promised that any of the new councilmen can call on his institutional knowledge.

Despite the often bitter tone of this year's election campaign, he harbors no ill feelings, he said, sitting in his store, one of several businesses he owns around downtown.

The store occupies two stories of what used to be Hobbs' lumber business, and the inventory runs the gamut from old dolls to carved amber to 1950s magazines.

As he reviewed his career, former council colleague William R. Stroh walked in with one of Hobbs' campaign signs around his neck.

"You all right?" Stroh asked, shaking his head. "To lose by just 13 votes, that's ridiculous."

Hobbs grinned. "I'm just another old man," he said.

A local mechanic walked in and added his condolences.

"I have no regrets," Hobbs said, grinning again.

"You shouldn't have any regrets for all the good you've done in this town," Stroh said. The two began to fuss about a resident who recently has been giving town water to his cows. Stroh refused to name the resident, but Hobbs quickly guessed his identity. Stroh grinned.

"You can't fool me about anything that's in this town," Hobbs boomed.

That ended the discussion.

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