Vitale positioned for political might

Councilwoman plans to seek re-election, but observers see her as prime candidate for higher office in county

March 19, 2006|By PHILLIP MCGOWAN AND ANDREA F. SIEGEL | PHILLIP MCGOWAN AND ANDREA F. SIEGEL,SUN REPORTERS

She applied last year to serve as an Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judge. She pondered whether to run for state's attorney. She turned down an offer from a group of developers to provide the financial backing to launch a county executive bid.

For the time being, it appears that Cathleen M. Vitale is going to play it safe. But again, it's just for the time being.

Vitale, a Severna Park Republican, will announce at a fundraising breakfast Wednesday that she will seek re-election for a second term on the County Council - a seat she claimed in 2002 with 70 percent of the vote. She currently has no opponent.

But if the speculation and hoopla that have swirled around Vitale in the past two years is any indication, the lawyer and former party leader is politically well-positioned.

Her independent streak, her sometimes stern approach to county spending, her generally affable nature and her close attention to ethical issues have won her many political allies and more than grudging respect from Democrats. In an interview late last year, Vitale said that the jobs of state's attorney and county executive had been on her mind. She talked about the possibility of running for state Senate or Congress down the line. Some of her Republican colleagues have said she would make a good county executive.

Vitale, 41, plays down the attention. "I'm very careful, I think, and hopefully to make sure: My head hasn't gotten big, too big, and I'm not too big for my britches," said Vitale, who is married to a county firefighter.

Representing a scarlet red council district, in a county that's trending more Republican with each election cycle, Vitale is blessed with a home-court advantage that few other incumbents have. At the same time, she is not seen as an ideologue - which may broaden her crossover appeal.

People who know her call her sharp, well-informed, willing to listen, ambitious yet humble, and someone who cuts to the chase. She is viewed as a strong advocate for her clients and her constituents.

She is seen as nice, said Dan Nataf, head of the Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College.

"Look, [County Executive] Janet Owens was elected because she was a nice lady. She said, `Look, I am not John Gary,'" Nataf said, referring to Owens' combative predecessor.

But Vitale can display a temper that rarely surfaces in public, and she isn't shy about taking a stand or showing her disapproval.

"She is no angel," said John S. Pantelides, who is head of the Anne Arundel County Alliance for Fair Land Use, a nonprofit group that lobbies on behalf of the development community. "Listen, we get passionate about things. She is the type of person you want to represent you, because no one will pull anything over on her."

County Councilman Ronald C. Dillon Jr., a Pasadena Republican, said Vitale can be "a bulldog."

"She is someone that doesn't back down, even if there are roadblocks in the way," Dillon said.

Rumors swirled for months last year that Vitale could mount a challenge in the wide-open county executive race to succeed Owens, a Democrat who is prohibited from seeking a third term, or oppose Democrat Frank R. Weathersbee for state's attorney. Republican political observers have said that Weathersbee, who has served as the county's top prosecutor for 18 years, may be vulnerable this year.

Last year, Vitale, a graduate of the University of Baltimore law school, was not recommended by a screening committee for appointment to a county judgeship.

Two of Vitale's Democratic colleagues on the council, Pamela G. Beidle and Barbara D. Samorajczyk, declined to comment for this article. While commending her constituency work, Ann Marie Remillard, head of the county Democratic Central Committee said, "She's not unbeatable."

If Vitale wins re-election on the County Council, she will be in a position to serve 11 years on the council. Council members are limited to two four-year terms, but Vitale can serve longer because she was appointed to her first term.

"She is like a kid in a candy store. She is in an enviable position," said Democrat Daryl Jones, a Glen Burnie lawyer who is running for council in another district.

Vitale was serving as chairwoman of the county's Republican State Central Committee when she ran for the council in 1998, but lost in the primary to Cliff R. Roop by 327 votes. Roop was elected to represent District 5, which includes the Broadneck Peninsula and portions of Pasadena and Millersville.

In January 2000, Roop suffered a heart attack and died in a council office during a County Council session. The next month, the majority-Democratic council selected Vitale in a secret ballot over 11 other Republicans.

Suddenly, the Amityville, N.Y., native who had lived in Severna Park since 1974, growing up to become a lawyer, marry an Anne Arundel County firefighter and have a son, was the District 5 council member.

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