Race for county executive

Johnson works hard to make race look easy

Maryland Votes 2006

November 05, 2006|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,Sun reporter

Thirty years ago, George F. Johnson IV was working as a patrol officer for the Anne Arundel County Police Department when he decided it was time to move up. But he hardly studied a lick for the sergeant's test and failed.

"I didn't put the time and effort into it, to be honest with you," the Pasadena resident said.

Johnson learned a lesson about being prepared, one he remembers as the moderate Democrat tries to become Anne Arundel's next county executive.

Shortly after winning a third term as county sheriff in 2002, Johnson began methodically building an expansive campaign. He has won the endorsement of nearly every elected county Democrat. He has received the backing of several major employee unions. And he has raised in excess of $1 million - more than any other executive candidate in county history.

"If there's something else that I need to do, somebody needs to tell me, because I really feel that I have left no stone unturned," said Johnson, 53.

Johnson has made his stewardship of the sheriff's office a cornerstone of his campaign in the conservative-leaning county. He inherited a $700,000 deficit when he took over the agency in 1994 from Republican Robert G. Pepersack Sr. Johnson says he eliminated the shortfall and expanded the office's duties. Now the agency, which has a $7 million annual budget, returns nearly $1 million to the county coffers each year.

But some question whether the decorated 35-year law-enforcement veteran has a wide enough range of experience to be county executive.

Critics have also accused Johnson of mismanaging the sheriff's office. They point to a county audit in 2004 that cited embezzlement in his office and another in 2002 that showed Johnson spent hundreds of county dollars on greeting cards and pocketknives. His critics also cite high turnover among his deputies and a backlog of nearly 12,000 unserved warrants as other concerns.

"He's obviously in over his head currently, so what's he going to do when he gets in a more important job [in which] he's managing hundreds of more employees?" said John E. Moran IV, a Republican who unsuccessfully ran against Johnson in 2002 and is running again for sheriff this year.

Johnson's Republican opponent for executive, Del. John R. Leopold, has been critical of raises that Johnson received from the General Assembly in light of the pay of county sheriff's deputies. Johnson's pay has risen from $42,000 to $99,115. The starting pay for deputies is currently $33,000.

"A true leader would have reduced the backlog of warrants by increasing his deputies' pay," Leopold said.

Johnson, a past president of the Maryland Sheriffs' Association and a 23-year veteran of the county police force, said his managerial experience far exceeds that of Leopold, a career legislator. The sheriff said he has budgeting and policy experience that give him a better handle on how to oversee the county government.

Under Johnson, the sheriff's office has taken on the additional duties of serving all criminal and civil warrants in the county, overseeing landlord evictions, establishing a child fingerprint identification program and a child-support enforcement unit. His staff, about 30 in 1994, now numbers about 100. Johnson also supervises security at the county Circuit Court building in Annapolis, which opened in 1998 and is five times larger than the old one.

"The learning curve," he said on the stump recently, "will be very small for me."

The sheriff also said he has learned from mistakes about how his office handles money, after a clerk in his office was charged in 2004 with - and later convicted of - stealing more than $12,000. Johnson said his office has adopted new money-handling procedures from the auditor's office.

Johnson's supporters say their man accepts responsibility for his actions. They also say he knows how to reach out to people; he knows how to get along. They say the plain-spoken, affable sheriff defies party labels.

"He's not a Republican, he's not a Democrat - he's a nice guy," said John Smallwood, a retired county employee and a Johnson supporter.

At campaign events, Johnson draws people to him. He greets people with a warm handshake and attentive ear. Near the end of a fundraiser last month, he danced with his wife to a Vince Gill song on a flatbed trailer.

"He's very laid-back," said Chris O'Neill, a former county teacher who got to know Johnson's through his volunteer work with students. "He's a county boy. He's not pretentious. But he's smart."

Johnson has promoted bipartisanship and building coalitions to solve the problems of Anne Arundel, especially those concerning growth. Last month, five former county executives - including three Republicans - praised Johnson's integrity in endorsing his campaign.

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