Arundel executive candidates trade gibes

At debate, Leopold questions the legacy of endorsements Johnson has received

Maryland Votes 2006

October 20, 2006|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,SUN REPORTER

Republican Del. John R. Leopold livened up a mild-mannered campaign for Anne Arundel County executive last night, accusing his Democratic opponent, Sheriff George F. Johnson IV, of poorly managing the sheriff's office and calling him a "good ol' boy" who would be cozy with developers.

After nearly an hour of locally televised debate at Anne Arundel Community College, Leopold was asked to respond to an endorsement Johnson picked up last week from the county's five former executives, including three Republicans. With issues of growth hanging decidedly over this election, the Pasadena lawmaker said that four former executives have been or still are involved with the development community.

Repeating an attack he made on the heels of what was considered an unprecedented endorsement in modern Anne Arundel politics, Leopold said the legacies of the former executives "are the congested roads and crowded schools." He implied that Johnson is cut from the same cloth.

"What is unprecedented, I represent the first serious threat to the good-ol'-boy network," Leopold said.

In perhaps the most watched of the debates and forums between the executive candidates before the general election Nov. 7, Johnson sought to hold up his endorsement as an example of what he called "consensus-building" and bipartisan style of governance, which he said has developed as a 35-year law enforcement veteran in the county.

"I take great exception to being labeled a `good ol' boy,' " Johnson said. "They have acknowledged that I have had a stellar career. They recognized the good I do."

Johnson said he would direct future growth into areas that have the roads, schools and other infrastructure to handle it.

During much of the first hour of the 90-minute debate, the candidates agreed on promoting affordable housing, improving education and establishing a county transit authority.

One of the two men will succeed two-term Democrat Janet S. Owens. Political observers expect a close contest between the two Pasadena residents. Johnson, 53, who has lived in the county for 48 years, has promoted his ability to win over independents and Republicans. Leopold, 63, has said he has the same crossover appeal, having won five terms to the House of Delegates in a Democratic stronghold. Before moving to Maryland, Leopold served as state representative and senator in Hawaii and later ran unsuccessfully for governor in the 1970s.

Both candidates acknowledged potential fiscal problems ahead, as the county faces a $1.5 billion school maintenance backlog, at least 10 union contracts to negotiate and an annual liability of at least $75 million for the county's retirement programs.

But both said they would not raise taxes to meet any shortfalls. Both offered their support for the county's tax-revenue cap. Leopold said he would spend the first year of his term examining the county's budget to look for reductions. He said he would cut a layer of bureaucracy that exists between the county executive and department heads.

"It's important to establish a level of trust and have a discussion with the County Council," said Leopold, from District 31, the county's northeast corner.

Johnson pointed out his ability to find good administrators to help him steer the county, as he said he did in reforming the sheriff's department after taking office in 1994. Johnson said that he eliminated a $700,000 deficit and that his office annually returns about $1 million to the county budget, despite an expansion of its duties over his 12-year tenure.

He said he would do the same with the county's $1 billion budget, reallocating about 2 percent of it for needed programs.

Leopold cited two audits in recent years as evidence that Johnson has mismanaged the sheriff's department. Leopold noted that auditors found that Johnson had spent hundreds of dollars on cards and pocketknives.

Johnson defended how he has managed the sheriff's department, noting that it had been managed poorly before he took office in 1994. "They laughed at it and scorned at it," he said.

Leopold's attacks on Johnson echo those made against him in the primary election, when former Annapolis Mayor Dennis Callahan pointed out a sheriff's department backlog of nearly 12,000 unserved warrants. Johnson defended his department and went on to defeat Callahan, who this week endorsed Leopold.

"I just find it amazing that once again I am faced with an opponent that has to go negative about everything in this race," Johnson said last night. "I don't understand why we can't talk about the issues."

phill.mcgowan@baltsun.com

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