Commission hopeful's quiet way slowly wins support

Nichols aims to bring civil tone to board

Carroll County

October 16, 2002|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Jeannie Nichols has a way of sneaking up on people.

She doesn't pop off snappy quotes or make radical promises, but the more observers hear the Democratic candidate for county commissioner discuss issues, the more they seem to respect her.

"I wasn't tremendously excited about Jeannie's candidacy at first," said Ross Dangel, spokesman for the Freedom Area Citizens' Council, an Eldersburg community group. "But the more you hear her talk, the more you realize she has very well-researched and thought-out opinions on almost every issue. I mean, I go right down the line, and I can't think of too many points I disagree with her on."

Such delayed recognition sits just fine with the candidate, who proudly says she would never spice up her persona to get elected. Nichols, 45 and a Sykesville councilwoman, said she is running for commissioner partly to bring a more civil tone to county government.

The days of commissioners criticizing each other must end, she said, because the conflicts make Carroll look poorly organized to neighboring clients and potential business partners.

"The key is, this county has a bad reputation in other parts of the state, and I think it's because the commissioners can't get along," Nichols said. "That sends a terrible message to potential clients."

The eight remaining candidates have conducted their debates cordially, and though some say they're failing to establish distinct identities, Nichols said she has found the tone refreshing.

Those who have worked with her say Nichols' calmness shouldn't be mistaken for a lack of toughness or conviction.

"Jeannie's just a real solid person," said Sykesville Mayor Jonathan S. Herman. "She researches carefully and then she follows through with a lot of heart."

Nichols has generated little negative response, but some say that's because she lacks a clear identity that can be attacked.

"The reason nobody can think of anything bad to say about Jeannie Nichols is because nobody knows her," said defeated commissioner candidate and conservative activist Ed Primoff. "The truth is, I can't really think of much bad to say about her, except that she's a Democrat and our ideologies are very different."

Nichols grew up in Woodlawn and remembers that even as a small child, she didn't appreciate vague responses. "I drove my parents nuts asking, `Why?'" she said.

That quality would prove key to her emergence as an activist. After putting herself through the University of Maryland by working as a barn hand and delivering pizzas, Nichols eventually lived in Prince George's County. She had never had much interest in politics until she heard the county's library board was about to close her local branch.

Nichols attended the meeting where that decision was to be made, hoping to at least hear an explanation.

"If they could've answered with a reasonable justification, then I would've been happy," she said. "But they couldn't."

Arguing that not enough citizens knew about the possible closure, Nichols persuaded the board to delay a decision. She returned the next month as the spokeswoman for hundreds of concerned library users, and the board agreed to keep the library open.

She and her husband moved to Sykesville eight years ago because they wanted to raise their children in a family-friendly environment. She ran a grant-writing business out of her house and began attending town meetings, where she became known as an avid and thoughtful questioner, Herman said. When the council had to appoint a new member to finish a departed member's term in 1998, it chose Nichols. She served the last year of that term and won re-election in 1999.

Nichols got her first taste of working with the commissioners during the town's attempts to win county support for developing the Warfield Center, 138 acres and 15 historic buildings that were part of the state-owned Springfield Hospital Center, into a business park. She thought the concept seemed perfect for Carroll County, perpetually in need of more industrial tax dollars, and found the commissioners' ambivalence toward the project puzzling. She saw in them the same qualities she had seen in the Prince George's library board -- an inability to explain policy clearly.

"There was no clear reason given for the decisions being made," she said. "It just didn't seem to be a fair process to me. It didn't seem to be a sensible process."

Nichols felt certain that, given her experience on the Sykesville council, she could do better, so she became a candidate.

She sees a county in desperate need of change and has presented a number of detailed policy positions during her campaign.

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