Race for county executive

Leopold banks on experience, personal style

Maryland Votes 2006

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

There is a certain consistency about John R. Leopold. He dresses like a college professor, typically wearing a blue dress shirt, red sweater vest and a navy blue suit jacket. He speaks Mandarin and has an appetite for reading American history. He enjoys talking local politics and policy, often at a favorite Glen Burnie diner.

He also likes to run for office - he has been doing it for nearly 40 years. He is known for knocking on thousands of doors and waving signs along roads. He is a Republican who has stressed constituent service in running successfully in a bedrock Democratic district.

Oh, and for nearly as long as Leopold has lived in Anne Arundel County, he has wanted to be county executive. After so many starts and stops and about-faces in his 25-year career in county politics, Leopold will learn in a few days whether he will achieve his goal.

Leopold, 63, has made a political life out of taking the economy-class approach to campaigning. For this race, the five-term state delegate and Pasadena resident is serving as his own campaign manager and spokesman. He has put up hundreds of his own signs.

Few question Leopold's smarts, his political skills or ethics; he has received bipartisan praise for his constituent work. Yet he has a reputation for aloofness, not always working well with other lawmakers and praising his own accomplishments while bucking his party. Others wonder if the career legislator - who has dabbled in art, public relations, teaching, coaching and college administration - has the executive experience to run county government with a $1.3 billion budget and more than 4,000 employees.

"John's an excellent politician, but he doesn't have the management skills to do that job," said former County Executive John G. Gary, a Republican who served with Leopold in the House of Delegates. Gary has endorsed Leopold's opponent, Sheriff George F. Johnson IV.

Since his primary win over four other challengers, Leopold has received tepid support from Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. - a telling point, some political observers say. Leopold voted this year to oppose the governor's efforts to take over several Baltimore schools. Leopold says he has voted with Ehrlich 90 percent of the time.

"While [the governor] has been disappointed with some of Delegate Leopold's votes in the past, he supports the Republican ticket," said Ehrlich's campaign spokeswoman, Shareese N. DeLeaver.

Del. David G. Boschert, who lost to Leopold in the primary, said he worked well with Leopold over the years as they regularly co-sponsored each other's legislation. But he has heard plenty of complaints about Leopold, too.

"No one is an `I' in politics," Boschert said. "Every elected official knows that they never do that by themselves."

Boschert added of Leopold: "He has a style about him. I compliment him on his style."

Leopold says he has a record of legislative accomplishment - on reducing property taxes, establishing the creation of charter schools, providing math and science scholarships, protecting well water and restricting panhandling - that speaks to his ability to work smartly and across party lines. He has served on four presidential commissions over 30 years. In 2000, he was named the National Republican Legislators Association's Legislator of the Year.

"I'm far from aloof," Leopold said. "You don't get to be national Legislator of the Year unless you are a bridge builder, a bipartisan bridge builder. I have a reputation of working with both parties to get things done."

He is resented, Leopold said, because of his independence. He said he has been deemed a political threat ever since he first won election to the Maryland House of Delegates in 1982, becoming the first Republican to win in the Democratic stronghold of District 31.

He also said his ability to draw from his personal wealth - he has lent at least $355,000 to his Maryland campaigns - reinforces that point.

"I'm not on the developer team or on the corporate interest team," Leopold said. "I am on the team aligned with the working-class people of this county."

A Philadelphia native, Leopold graduated with an English degree from Hamilton College in New York state, then first made a political name for himself in Hawaii. He won statewide office three times there, building his name recognition with his penchant for sign-waving. He was the first Republican in state history to be elected to the state board of education (1968). He went on to win election as a state representative (1970) and state senator (1974). He unsuccessfully ran for Hawaii governor as the Republican nominee in 1978, getting 45 percent of the vote in the overwhelmingly Democratic state.

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