After years spent toiling in all sorts of trenches - as a police officer, as a computer programmer, as a Baltimore County councilman - Vince Gardina had finally steered his career back to his first love, the environment.
So when he was fired from his state job as a project manager, the Democratic lawmaker, convinced it was the work of a Republican administration playing party politics, fought back.
"I knew there was no reason to fire me," Gardina, no stranger to political battles, said recently. "I was wronged so severely, I wasn't about to let it just slide."
It would be the outcome of Gardina's yearlong effort, a settlement with the Ehrlich administration for $100,000, that would first grab headlines in a week that would later include the firing of a state employee and longtime Ehrlich aide for spreading rumors about Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley.
With Democratic lawmakers considering an investigation into the administration's personnel practices, those who know Gardina say they are not surprised that the councilman would have taken on his battle.
"Never underestimate Vince's tenacity. Those who do become surprised," said Kevin Kamenetz, who has served alongside Gardina on the County Council since 1994. "It's not the size of the man in a fight but the size of the fight in a man, and Vince has a lot of fight in him."
It's a trait that has served the bespectacled, 49-year-old Perry Hall resident time and again during more than 14 years as a county councilman, through hard-fought campaigns and frenzied debates over property condemnation and housing vouchers for the poor.
On the Baltimore County Council, where consensus and teamwork are stressed and where meetings seldom produce even one dissenting vote, Vincent J. Gardina, the panel's longest-serving member, is seen as something of a maverick.
"Vince is not one of the boys," said Mary L. Harvey, the county's director of community conservation and a former Gardina aide. "He's oftentimes out on a limb by himself."
For the Baltimore-born Gardina, working on behalf of the environment was always the end-goal. But jobs in his dream field were scarce when he graduated with a geography degree from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 1977, so Gardina turned to police work.
He spent seven years patrolling Baltimore County - a job he said left him hardened. Interacting with criminals made him "more skeptical of society" and less affected by criticism, he said.
"It's developed my tolerance for what goes on in politics," he said.
But it wasn't where he saw himself down the road - not if he planned to raise a family. Gardina, who is married and has a 14-year-old daughter, went back to school, earning a second degree in computer science, a field awash with jobs, at the University of Baltimore in 1986. Sixteen years later, he would finally return to the environment as a career after earning a master's degree in environmental engineering from the Johns Hopkins University.
In the meantime, he volunteered his time for environmental and development issues, heading the Sierra Club of Greater Baltimore and helping found a community group that aimed to improve the quality of development - work, he said, that ultimately led to his first council bid in 1990.
No one was more surprised than he, Gardina said, when he beat the incumbent in the primary. He went on to win in the general election.
As a councilman on the county's east side, Gardina downzoned and rezoned, focusing effort on revitalizing communities. He weathered controversial meetings in an election year over a government program to move poor city families into better neighborhoods in the county. He said he ran into community opposition over some of his efforts, including one to regulate what he called "bootleg marinas."
"I was never concerned about Vince Gardina turning on me or breaking a commitment," said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the county executive from 1994 to 2002. "If he gives his word, it's his word."
Gardina won re-election in 1994 and 1998. But when the council embarked on its once-a-decade redistricting process in 2001, he found himself in the political battle of his life. His fellow councilmen had redrawn the boundaries, lumping him in the same district with Republican Councilman Wayne M. Skinner.
Gardina flirted with the idea of leaving the council and running for state Senate but decided to run for another council term. When Skinner lost the Republican primary, Gardina found himself facing off against then-Del. James F. Ports Jr., an Ehrlich ally who had gained prominence in a bruising fight against a property-condemnation bill.
Gardina won in a tight race. Ports was later hired into a high-level position in the state Department of Transportation. He currently serves as the agency's deputy director.