Thomas McCarron, Julia Walsh Gouge has endured four difficult years as a Carroll commissioner, often finding herself outvoted on key issues by her more conservative colleagues, Donald I. Dell and Robin Bartlett Frazier. She worried that the conflicts might drag her down in this year's election.
"I was afraid at times going into the primary because there was so much frustration with the board," she said. "But people always told me, `Julia, we know you're outvoted, but hang in there. We need you to hang in there for us.'"
Those sentiments turned into thousands of votes in the primary and general elections. Now, having secured a fourth term with more votes than any other commissioner candidate, Gouge stands unchallenged as the most experienced and most popular official in county government.
People across the Carroll political spectrum seem eager for change, and they expect her to set the county's agenda, even though she says her personality is geared more toward compromise.
"I think the new board will look to Julia," said Democrat Neil Ridgely, who finished a distant fourth in the election Tuesday. "Why wouldn't they? I would have."
Gouge said she'll accept the leadership mantle.
"I think it makes sense to a certain extent," she said. "Not that the other two aren't smart people or aren't ready, but I remember when I walked in for the first time and they showed me my office - I felt like ... `What have I gotten myself into?'"
The other winners, Dean L. Minnich and Perry L. Jones Jr., said they're happy that Gouge will provide an experienced voice, although both said they expect to play equal roles fairly quickly.
Asked whether Gouge would be the leader of the new board, at least at first, Minnich said, "It would be natural for that to happen."
Entry to politics
Gouge, 62, entered the political world in 1979, as a councilwoman in and then mayor of Hampstead, her hometown. In 1986, she became the first woman elected as a Carroll commissioner. Known as a conservative voice during her first term, she said she gradually realized that she felt more comfortable as a moderate.
"It's always nice to have your idea accepted, but when you brainstorm and have an open mind, then you usually end up with a better idea than even your own," she said.
After a failed run for lieutenant governor in 1994, Gouge recaptured her commissioner seat in 1998 as a full-fledged moderate. She quickly discovered that she did not see eye to eye with Dell and Frazier, especially on growth issues and on their commitment to build a water treatment plant at Piney Run Park.
But her relationship with her constituency never seemed to sour. And she had the last laugh, winning easily in the Republican primary Sept. 10 while Dell and Frazier finished out of the running.
Her conflicts with Dell and Frazier have continued through the past few weeks - she has accused them of trying to cram important votes into their last few months in office.
Although she probably never will be popular with Carroll's most conservative element, Gouge's stances have earned her many fans.
"I'm happy to see Julia rewarded for standing up through the last years of what must have been pure hell," said Ross Dangel, spokesman for the Freedom Area Citizens' Council, an Eldersburg-based community group.
"She deserves the victory," said Thomas McCarron, chairman of the county's beleaguered Democratic State Central Committee. "She's been a real leader under difficult circumstances."
Wells are a priority
Gouge now must figure out what to do with the reservoir of good will. She says she is most eager to halt plans for building the Piney Run plant and search for alternative water sources. She said this year's drought has increased the need for more water, and said an early priority will be getting wells in South Carroll up and running.
Slowing residential growth will take longer, she said, because the commissioners must develop records of all the new building that has been approved. The new board also will have to emphasize slow-growth principles to the county staff, she said. She worries that changes won't occur quickly enough for the residents who have objected to the county's growth policies in recent years.
"People assume that when you take over, you can cut growth by December," she said. "People assume you have more power than you really do."
Such statements have lead some to say privately that Gouge is a better conciliator than leader. But she says her caution is born of experience.
One thing the commissioners can do quickly is reorganize the government, and Gouge said she'd like to create a chief of staff post and bring all services related to the environment under one department.
`Has my confidence'
Such ideas sound just about right to reformers such as Ridgely, who hopes Gouge will steer her less-experienced cohorts.
"I think she can ask them to do anything she wants and get it," he said. "They're going to want to take her leadership, and that's a good thing for the county. She has my confidence."
Gouge's voice wavered with emotion as she talked about the words of support she has heard from opponents who treated her during forums as an unassailable elder stateswoman.
"I'm proud to have reached this point," she said. "Not many people have made it this long."