After his predecessor's abrupt exit, Bob Bruchey is mayor again

Wild ride in Hagerstown politics


HAGERSTOWN -- Barely a couple of weeks on the job, Bob Bruchey has no time for lunch, no business cards yet - and a $10 parking ticket because the first of his meetings ran late.

The city's new mayor, though, is cheerfully philosophical about it.

More than most, Bruchey, 47, knows a bit about luck, both good and bad. Consider his life in the past month: Depressed after losing two elections, he was selling cars at the local Ford lot, convinced his political career was over. Days later, he was standing before an applauding crowd, being sworn in as mayor of this Western Maryland city for a second time.

"You can't write a book like this. No one would believe it," a bemused Bruchey says with a grin.

Indeed, his political comeback was made possible by an unlikely plot twist: The last mayor, Richard Trump, abruptly quit Feb. 1 after less than eight months in office.

The revolving door at City Hall has been the talk of this town of 37,536 that's better known for its 1960s storefronts, German eateries and minor-league baseball.

"We've never had a similar instance. Some mayors, you wished they would have left, but no," says William Breichner, the former Democratic mayor whom Trump defeated in last May's general election.

"I don't think you can avoid [talking about] it when you walk down the street," he said.

The turnover comes at a sensitive time for Hagerstown, which is rapidly reaching a crossroads. The once-sleepy downtown is beginning to bustle anew. Downtown property values are up, a state university campus opened last year, and investors are fixing up empty turn-of-the-century buildings.

But amid rising housing prices and a rapid suburbanization of Washington County, the city is struggling to retain its privacy and slower pace of life.

Trump's overnight departure let Bruchey, whom Trump had upset by 55 votes in last year's Republican primary, have the final word.

The son of a Hagerstown police officer, Robert E. Bruchey II served as mayor here from 1997 to 2001 until he lost his seat to Breichner. Like any good car salesman, Bruchey wasn't inclined to take no for an answer. He ran again last year, hoping to challenge Breichner, and when he lost the GOP primary, Bruchey tried an unsuccessful write-in bid.

It's a job that pays $28,000 a year and has few perks - not even amnesty from parking tickets, as he discovered. But Bruchey says he has years of fond boyhood memories and a deep-seated "love for Hagerstown" that make him want to work toward recapturing the city's prosperity.

Last month, the all-Democratic City Council gave Bruchey the go-ahead to finish Trump's four-year term. The council chose him from a field of 14 Republicans who applied, including five who were disqualified because they lived outside the city.

Bruchey was an "obvious choice," says City Councilman Lewis Metzner. Not only is he well-versed in city business and political affairs, Metzner says, but he knows how to get along with the council, despite party differences.

A local publisher, Trump was dogged by controversy before he was elected mayor last May. He ran on a well-financed Republican slate that was pro-development and outspent all the other candidates in the city.

Almost from the moment he took office with a pledge to make God "a major player" in his administration, Trump found himself an outsider. None of the other candidates on Trump's slate won. He bickered constantly with the City Council; at one point a local columnist dubbed their meetings the "City Hall Follies."

"There seems at first blush to be a certain something about Trump that the five council [members] find distasteful. If I had to put my finger on exactly what they don't like about him in one word, I would characterize it as `everything,'" Tim Rowland wrote in the Hagerstown Herald-Mail.

In September, after Trump questioned the religious faith of one council member and publicly chided others, the council fired off a letter to the Herald-Mail calling his behavior "unacceptable."

Despite fitful attempts to make peace, Trump and the council never could, which Trump said was the reason he resigned. Trump did not return recent calls to his office and home.

Metzner credits Bruchey for being "on top of things," quickly catching up on key issues - including a plan by the local hospital to move out of town. Moreover, he and other council members agree, Bruchey has succeeded in restoring some civility to City Hall.

"Will we ever be able to see eye-to-eye? That was one of the deciding factors" that led to the unanimous vote for Bruchey, says Councilwoman Alesia Parson-McBean, who is in her first term. On his sixth day as mayor, Bruchey impressed businesspeople with a thoughtful State of the City address. On his 14th day, he discussed with the Board of Public Safety how to better tackle drug dealing. Later that day, he met with the hospital's chief executive about turning the downtown medical center into a retirement home if the planned move proceeds.

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