Arundel ex-leaders join in endorsement

Rare bipartisanship benefits Democrat Johnson

Maryland Votes 2006

October 13, 2006|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,sun reporter

In an unusual show of bipartisanship in a county being fiercely contested by both major parties, five former Anne Arundel County executives - including three Republicans - endorsed yesterday the Democratic candidate for chief executive in next month's election.

The five, who represent all but one of the people to hold the office since it was created with the county charter in 1965, posed for pictures in Annapolis with George F. Johnson IV. The exception, current executive Democrat Janet Owens, did not attend.

The former executives cited what they said were Johnson's integrity and managerial skills as three-term county sheriff and his willingness to build coalitions. They said he's better-suited than the Republican nominee, Del. John R. Leopold, to uphold the quality of life in the face of extensive building demands.

"I have never endorsed a Democrat before," said Republican John G. Gary, Anne Arundel's executive from 1994 to 1998. "But it's time to stand up for the right man and the right reasons."

Gary took a veiled shot at Leopold, who has been criticized for seeking undue recognition for legislative action: "You will never see George Johnson take credit for something he didn't do."

Leopold, reached by phone after the event, criticized the former executives, saying that to "varying degrees [they] have been far too cozy with the big-money bosses and the development industry." Leopold said their alliance with Johnson indicates that the Democratic nominee supports the same "special-interest politics."

"Their legacy is crowded schools and congested roads," Leopold said of the former executives. "I intend to drive a stake through the heart of the good-old-boy network and not let the developers to continue to drive public policy in the county."

In an interview last night, Owens, who lost her bid for state comptroller last month, would not discuss whether she plans to endorse any Anne Arundel office-seekers. She said that she chose not to attend yesterday's event.

"I have not been part of any political activity [in the county]," Owens said. "I'm just doing my job."

Anne Arundel is considered a swing county that is almost evenly divided by party registration - 133,611 Democrats to 118,139 Republicans - but has been trending Republican. Of its 15 representatives in the House of Delegates, eight are Democrats and seven are Republicans.

And, despite electing Owens, a Democrat, to the maximum permitted two terms as executive, Anne Arundel supported Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. with 65 percent of the vote in 2002.

Political observers said the latest round of endorsements should help Johnson win over conservative Democrats and the nearly 54,000 Independents in the county, who have sided with Republicans in recent election cycles.

"It makes Leopold someone who clearly isn't an insider," said Dan Nataf, head of the Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College.

Nataf said Leopold's response fits his strategy of campaigning as an outsider.

"Not being endorsed by the insiders is one way to ensure to the voters that he's going to be different," Nataf said.

Leopold has promoted his ability to win crossover support. He has won five terms to the House of Delegates in the Democratic stronghold of District 31, in the county's northeast corner. He won the primary last month over four opponents with almost 37 percent of the vote, and had about $380,000 on hand as of early last month.

Johnson, a conservative Democrat who has wrapped up scores of union endorsements, said the support from the former executives - Joseph W. Alton Jr. and Robert A. Pascal, both Republicans; Democrat O. James Lighthizer; Robert R. Neall, a Republican who later became a Democrat, and Gary - speaks to the inclusiveness he wants to promote in his administration.

"We have to work this way, because we have a lot of difficult problems we face in the next four years," Johnson said at the news conference outside the Arundel Center, the county government headquarters.

The endorsers said that Johnson's 35 years of law enforcement experience in the county certifies his strong character. They praised Johnson for reforming the sheriff's office, which has returned around $1 million to the county's coffers each year.

Lighthizer, who served as executive from 1982 to 1990 and endorsed Ehrlich for governor four years ago, said: "George Johnson has the integrity, hands down. For me, it's a very easy decision because of his integrity."phill.mcgowan@baltsun.com

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