Leopold needs to change his tune

Our view: Leopold should follow example of other county executives and hire campaign staff

March 29, 2011

Back when John R. Leopold was running for a seat in the House of Delegates, his no-frills campaign style — holding a "Leopold & You" sign on the side of the highway — was appealing and effective. It captured the nature of his appeal as a no-nonsense, independent-minded politician.

Since then he has climbed the political ladder to become executive of Anne Arundel County, yet his style of running a campaign has remained small-time, and it is no longer serving him or the voters well.

State prosecutors are looking into charges that in 2010 Mr. Leopold directed his county-funded security detail to perform campaign tasks, including picking up donations. Mr. Leopold has denied wrongdoing and says he smells politics in the charges.

Maybe he's right; the people who brought the issue to the state prosecutor may well be upset at him for some other reason. But that doesn't change the gravity of the charges, which he doesn't directly deny. Maintaining a strict separation between campaign activities and county business is important, and Mr. Leopold needs to do more than dismiss it as nit-picking.

The case that appears to have the prosecutor's attention is an instance in which a police officer performing security duties for Mr. Leopold picked up a campaign check from an official with the county's firefighters union. Mr. Leopold says that was an oversight and that he would have done it himself had he not been recovering from back surgery. Time will tell whether the incident will amount to anything in court, or whether the state prosecutor's investigation is broader.

But in terms of maintaining Anne Arundel County voters' trust that their tax dollars are going to pay for government services, not campaign activities, Mr. Leopold has more to answer for.

The county executive listed expenditures of $520,000 in his re-election effort, but most of that was repayment of loans for previous campaign debts. According to his campaign finance report, he spent a mere $224,000 on actual campaign expenses. That counts as a relative shoestring effort compared to some of his county executive peers, but it is still a substantial operation, much that one would spend to run for the House of Delegates. What's particularly notable about his campaign is that he reported spending not a single dime on salaries and compensation for staff. He doesn't even appear to have reimbursed his top campaign aides for mileage or cell phone expenses.

That is unusual, to say the least. Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz spent $138,000 on salaries and compensation. Howard County Executive Ken Ulman spent about $336,000, and Prince George's County Executive Rushern Baker spent $557,000. Even Mr. Leopold's fellow Republican, Harford County Executive David R. Craig, spent about $18,000 on salaries.

Mr. Leopold says that's the way he's run all 22 of his campaigns. But never before has he had quite so extensive a paid government staff as he does now. As his vanquished opponent Joanna L. Conti has wryly observed, believing that all the duties of Mr. Leopold 's re-election effort were performed by volunteers on their free time is a stretch.

It is, of course, common for top-level employees in an administration to have some role in a campaign, but it is a delicate balance. Elected officials cannot pressure their employees to volunteer for the re-election campaigns, and an attempt to perform extensive campaign work while still on the public payroll requires a scrupulous accounting of time — not just carrying a separate campaign cell phone and stepping out of the county office to take calls. That is why top political staffers typically take a leave of absence from their government jobs during campaign season.

Hiring a campaign staff means that there is less money for a politician to allot for advertisements and other expenses. But it is money well spent. It helps preserve the vital distinction between campaign activities and everyday governance. Failing to make that distinction can, as Mr. Leopold is discovering, make you vulnerable to charges of misusing public office.

In the past Mr. Leopold's campaign style has always been that of a one-man band. It has served him well, but now that he is playing in a larger arena, head of the state's fourth largest county, he needs to change his tune, to more scrupulously separate work done for "Leopold" from that that done for "you" the taxpayer.

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