Primary win gives new perspective to columnist

September 22, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

STILL BASKING in the gentle glow of a primary election victory, Dean Minnich, candidate for Carroll County commissioner, receives his first official press inquiry of the morning with all the dignity it deserves.

"Are you," I inquire, "out of your mind?"

"I know," Minnich laughs.

"You're blowing the lid off this thing," I say.

"I know," he laughs.

For the last several decades, Minnich, 60, has been a newspaperman. He started out at The Evening Sun in Hanover, Pa., which had thousands of Carroll County readers. Then he went to the News American of dear departed memory. Then, to the Carroll County Times.

Mostly, he's been a newspaper columnist - which, as everybody knows, beats working for a living. In the immortal sentiment of Tom Wicker, a columnist is an observer who stands above the battle until the killing is done, and then descends and shoots the wounded.

Who would give up such a fine, entertaining job to enter the world of politics and government and risk (a) actual work; and (b) becoming one of the wounded?

"I know," Minnich says again. "I need to talk to somebody who understand that."

"So?"

"So I've been living in a Wizard of Oz story," he says, "and I got a peek behind the wizard's curtain and didn't like what I saw."

He gave up his column at the Carroll County Times to run for one of the three county commissioner spots. He ran as a moderate Republican. In the primary election two weeks ago, he led all candidates with 9,446 votes - knocking off incumbents Robin Bartlett Frazier and Donald I. Dell by more than 5,000 votes.

When his supporters gathered on election night, the victorious Minnich told them: "This is my referendum, that a nonpolitical ordinary guy can make it. People went to the polls saying, `I know this guy, and I trust him.'"

Minnich grew up in Carroll County when it was still Norman Rockwell country. In the post-World War II years, it was still lush farmland, and little grocery stores instead of supermarket chains, and public schools where you stayed in the same building from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Maybe a thousand people lived in Manchester when Minnich grew up there. Many were farmers. Minnich's father ran a small store: dry goods up front, groceries in the back. When Minnich graduated from Manchester High in 1960, he had 96 people in his graduating class - "and it was that big only because Manchester and Hampstead had merged."

In those days, he remembers, three people in town commuted each day to Baltimore. Now, he says, more than half of Carroll County residents commute each day to places like Baltimore and Annapolis. Many more cars - "one-third of county traffic," he says - are from Pennsylvania driving into Maryland to go to work every day.

The little grocery store has been replaced by the shopping mall. The schools that took kids through 13 years of familiarity have been divided and subdivided and expanded, and vast acres of farmland developed for housing developments and shopping malls. The county's look has changed, and so have its needs. Norman Rockwell's gone thataway.

Minnich has watched the changes all these years, and written about them extensively, and now finds himself in a position not previously anticipated. He'll go to the general election, local observers say, with a legitimate shot at winning one of the three spots.

(Trailing Minnich in the Republican primary were incumbent Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge and Perry L. Jones Jr., mayor of Union Bridge. The three Democratic candidates faced no opposition in their primary.)

So, the question: Why is Minnich doing this?

"You reach an age," he said last week, "where you realize your kids want a place to live. And my friends, and people whose opinions I value, talked about government doing certain things, playing insider games. You start to feel duped. You start to think, `I've been writing my brains out for 40 years, and I've seen things ... '"

Last year, he wrote about a new zoning law that many said would allow rampant residential development across rural landscape. Minnich criticized what he saw as insider deals. The charges resonated. In the half-century American exodus from cities to suburbs, Carroll County has gone through considerable growing pain - geographically and psychologically.

In Minnich's time covering the county, its population has tripled. "It's not that we don't want new people," he says. "I have no illusions about Carroll County being the way it was when I grew up. But we've got to focus on the quality of life we have for all these people."

Now his focus changes - from an observer to one who might find himself in the very heart of the battle.

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