Mayor loses his luster, election

Aberdeen leader seen as divisive

November 11, 2007|By Justin Fenton and Madison Park | Justin Fenton and Madison Park,Sun reporters

It wasn't long into S. Fred Simmons' term as mayor of Aberdeen that he began strapping on a bulletproof vest and running into drug dens with the city's SWAT team, an automatic pistol nestled in a holster at his side.

The bespectacled insurance agent never handcuffed a suspect, but he wanted to be there so he could look into their eyes and tell them they were no longer welcome.

Politicians in Harford County had high hopes for Simmons after he won an exciting race in 2005 that generated a record turnout. His attention-grabbing campaign included blanketing Aberdeen with signs that read, "Who is Fred Simmons?" - an allusion to Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.

On Tuesday, Aberdeen voters again went to the polls in record numbers. But this time, they sent Simmons home, electing Michael E. Bennett, a mild-mannered former state trooper.

Since 2005, it was Simmons who appeared to bear the weight of the world on his shoulders, as disputes raged over issues including tax increases and development. The tension boiled over in lawsuits and ugly public bickering. Word leaked out that his administration had become the focus of a broad investigation by the state prosecutor's office, a probe that has not produced charges.

In this city of about 15,000 residents - where politicians serve two-year terms and are continually campaigning - elections can be nasty, and Tuesday's was no different. Despite looming military growth at nearby Aberdeen Proving Ground and a host of hot-button issues, the election turned out to be less about taxes, water and development.

"This election wasn't about me and Bennett," Simmons said Friday. "It was just about me. It was a referendum on what I did."

Before his foray into politics, Simmons was known around town as an affable businessman and pilot who lived in a stately Victorian home in downtown Aberdeen. He joined the board of trustees at the local community college and quickly developed a reputation for shooting from the hip, demanding increased accountability and openness.

When he took over as mayor, he was seen as a breath of fresh air. He vowed to work from City Hall every day, a change of pace from previous leaders. "I'm going to do this in a selfless fashion," he said.

Simmons spent much of the day in a "War Room," a corner office wallpapered with satellite photos of the city boundaries flanked by proposed subdivisions. He regularly visited schools and ate lunch with students, and took walks through some of the rougher neighborhoods. He donated his $30,000 annual salary to local civic or charitable groups.

Such gestures won the support of black church leaders such as the Rev. Nate Johnson, a pastor at Aberdeen Bible Church. Simmons "has done a tremendous job of developing programs for young people and housing," Johnson said. "One key thing is, he hasn't polarized the city on whites and blacks."

But in growth-wary Harford, a plan to annex nearly 500 acres met with fierce opposition from residents. The proposal was defeated by a 2-1 margin in a referendum and led to lawsuits against the city.

"The purpose of this lawsuit is to politically kill Fred Simmons," said Paul Burkheimer, a member of Aberdeen Communities Together, which sued the city.

ACT members portrayed Simmons as a spendthrift, mounting signs on truck beds that called him "Tax and Spend Fred" and sarcastically thanked him for doubling water and sewer rates.

The group embarked on a door-to-door effort to support Bennett, whose platform included a promise to lower taxes.

There also were concerns when Simmons hired his business partner, accountant Stephen M. Wright, at $100,000 for about six months to assess the budget through a no-bid contract. Wright and Simmons called the investigation by the state prosecutor politically motivated.

Despite the controversy, even some opponents conceded that he had been largely effective, if divisive. "There's something I like about Fred," Thomas Dymond, 62, a plaintiff in a lawsuit to block a tax increase, said earlier this year. "He's willing to do things. You really need that. But on the other hand, I think he may be a little too arrogant for the job."

"I don't think he was that abrasive," countered David Yensan, a Simmons ally who lost his council seat in the election. "He was very direct. Folks call him arrogant. I think he was confident. There's a fine line between arrogant and confident."

Early on, Simmons had an acrimonious relationship with Councilman Michael Hiob, a Democrat. But Hiob became one of Simmons' staunchest allies.

"We put [partisan politics] aside because we had the same vision for the city," said Hiob, who was re-elected. "We balanced the budget, we straightened it out. We've done the right things."

Political observers said Simmons' "you're either with me or against me" stance burned many bridges, and on Tuesday, Aberdeen voters signaled that they were ready for change.

Weeks before the election, Simmons had the image of Atlas tattooed on his biceps. Atlas Shrugged proffers that society will stagnate if self-motivated leaders are socially demonized or punished for their accomplishments.

As the victors and the vanquished trickled out of the polling center late Tuesday, Simmons lingered outside at downtown's Festival Park. Two children asked him what he would do next. He grinned and replied, "Maybe I'll have to eat worms."

He shrugged off the defeat, saying he has no regrets but also no plans to seek office again. Calling questions about the campaign irrelevant, he repeated his familiar refrain:

"People get the governments they deserve."

justin.fenton@baltsun.com madison.park@baltsun.com

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