What began as a polite contest between two men seeking to become Anne Arundel County's next chief executive has morphed into a frenzy of attacks on each other's record.
With recent polls showing the race a dead heat between Democratic county Sheriff George F. Johnson IV and Republican Del. John R. Leopold, the two have begun unloading hundreds of thousands of dollars in the campaign's final days, in the form of TV and radio ads and mailings, trying to weaken each other.
"It's appropriate to compare records and differences on issues. ... I would call that informative, not negative," Leopold said.
In newspaper ads, the five-term delegate has noted allegations of embezzlement within the sheriff's office and a backlog of unserved warrants in part to question Johnson's management skills. Johnson has responded in recent days in a flier and on TV trying to link rising electricity rates to Leopold. The sheriff has also said that Leopold lacks the management and policy experience to run the $1.3 billion county government.
"[Leopold] felt he needed to let people know something about me," Johnson said yesterday. "I felt they needed to know something about him."
With the ads flying in the final days before Tuesday's election, both candidates are likely to remain on the attack rather than delve into the nuances of policy differences, said Dan Nataf, director of Anne Arundel Community College's Center for the Study of Local Issue.
"This week is a critical one because people are focusing on things more than ever," Nataf said. "They need some bits of information, especially on TV."
The tenor of the race has changed since last month , when the candidates appeared to agree on such issues as protecting the county's waterways, slowing growth and encouraging mass transit. The greatest difference between Johnson, 53, and Leopold, 63, - who both live in Pasadena - was their persona.
The three-term sheriff has come across as plain-spoken and down to earth. He has campaigned on improving education, reforming the permitting process and providing affordable housing. He has won over environmentalists for his support of a dedicated waterway restoration fund.
Leopold, who began his political career nearly 40 years ago in Hawaii, is seen as a policy wonk who wins people over with his dogged constituent service. In deference to the fiscally conservative county, Leopold has called for cutting county bureaucracy. He opposes the waterway restoration fund, referring to it as a property tax increase, and he wants to install a 311 system, similar to one of Baltimore, to respond to constituent needs.
Both men began campaigning - and fundraising - for the county's top job almost immediately after Janet S. Owens won re-election to her second and final term in 2002. During the current four-year cycle, Johnson raised $1,309,343 and spent $1,182,942. Over the same period, Leopold raised $497,446 - with more than half in the form of personal loans.
The trend toward combative began in earnest two weeks ago during a televised debate at Anne Arundel Community College. During the final 30 minutes, Leopold attacked Johnson on the sheriff's office's nearly 12,000 unserved warrants, criticized two pay raises Johnson received and brought up state fines imposed on Johnson for late filings of his campaign finance reports.
The Republican lawmaker also called Johnson a "good ol' boy" who would allow developers to drive the county's agenda.
Johnson has fended off those attacks. He said his 35 years of law enforcement experience makes himself someone the county can trust.
Johnson tried to project an image that he was above the fray. "I don't understand why we can't talk about the issues," he said at the AACC debate.
But Johnson has moved away from that position after separate polls midmonth by the community college and The (Annapolis) Capital put the race at a tie.
In TV ads that praise his reform of the sheriff's office, Johnson's campaign also accuses Leopold of bowing to utility companies. The ad points out that Leopold voted for electric deregulation in 1999 and accuses the lawmaker of taking thousands from the utility industry.
In a statement released Wednesday, Leopold denounced the ad as a "deceitful lie." He said he has received one contribution of $100 from BGE in his 20 years in the House of Delegates but acknowledged receiving thousands of dollars from construction companies that use "utility" in their names.
Each candidate is also trying to gain ground by accentuating positives. Johnson is highlighting his unprecedented endorsement by five former county executives to demonstrate his bipartisan approach to governing. Leopold is promoting his endorsements from The Sun, The Washington Post and The Capital that compliment him on his independence.
Johnson acknowledged yesterday he is in a close race, but he is putting his faith in an extensive campaign team to get out of vote next week. "We would like to be up double digits [in the polls,] but that's not the case," Johnson said. "We are OK with that."