Volume 14, Issue 20 ~ May 18 - May 24, 2006

Tracking the Herd of Elephants

Handicapping a crowded field of Anne Arundel Republicans competing for their party’s county executive nomination

by Sandra Olivetti Martin

In the high-stakes competition for Anne Arundel County executive, a herd of elephants is racing to bring the county’s top job back to the GOP after eight years of Democratic control.

The top elephant wins the right to race in the November general election against Sheriff George Johnson or Dennis Callahan, Anne Arundel County’s director of recreation and parks, the pair of contestants for the Democratic nomination.

Between now and Primary Day Sept. 12, elephants and donkeys will be traipsing through our neighborhoods, rapping on our doors and popping up at carnivals and crab feasts. Hardly a week goes by when the county exec wannabes aren’t speaking at a community forum, where you can grill them yourself.

Chasing this herd, we’ve visited them on the job, followed them to forums and fundraisers and listened as they trumpeted their virtues and taken tusk to their foes.

Two in the jostling herd, Delegates David Boschert of Crownsville and John Leopold of Pasadena, are colleagues, among the 20 members of the Anne Arundel delegation to the General Assembly.

But in this legislative session, collegiality wore thin under the cutting edge of traded accusations. Leopold accused candidate Boschert of “blatantly false patterns of unethical behavior.” Boschert, for his part, assailed candidate Leopold for meager fundraising.

Another aspirant, Phil Bissett, of Edgewater, regarded in some quarters as the frontrunner, used to work the same General Assembly job. He’s had the advantage in recent months of being a full-time campaigner after giving up his job as director of MARC, Maryland’s commuter rail and bus system.

Republicans four and five are educators. Tom Angelis, of Davidsonville, earns his living at Baltimore’s Francis M. Wood High School.

“It’s an alternative school,” says Angelis, “the last stop before these 14- to 20-year-old students are asked to leave the system. Most are fairly dysfunctional. It’s a challenge.”

School business occupies still another candidate. Greg Nourse of Glen Bernie is the county’s assistant school superintendent for business services. He’s viewed as a long shot, hoping to parlay skill in managing a single — albeit huge — county department into a shot at administering the whole county.

Four years ago, just 25 percent of Anne Arundel’s registered Republicans voted when Bissett topped Angelis for the GOP nomination. This time around, with no Democratic incumbent, insiders are predicting a bigger turnout of the 117,000-plus registered Republicans.

Bob Duckworth, Anne Arundel County circuit court clerk and a Republican who considered making the race, said that he believes that none of the candidates is the clear leader, “though some people would like to say otherwise.”

Here’s Bay Weekly’s first look a the GOP field.

Phil Bissett

‘Winning his party’s primary once has given Phil Bissett, left, endless energy and dreams.’

‘Tickling’ Past Supporters

Bissett, a veteran political operative who’s appeared on the ballot every four years since 1994, has a yen for elected office.

Good thing, because the Hatch Act — which restricts the political activity of government employees who work in federally funded programs — made him choose between the job he had and the one he wants.

Having lost one high-stakes race because he admittedly “got complacent and lazy,” the 49-year-old Bissett has vowed never to make that mistake again.

Now, campaigning is his full-time job, which, according to his way of thinking, has given him an early edge.

He’s run for the job before successfully — at the primary level. In 2002, Bissett won the Republican nomination, capturing near 64 percent of the vote in a two-man race against Tom Angelis. But he lost the job to incumbent Democrat Janet Owens.

This time, Bissett jumped in early and enthusiastically, declaring his candidacy in January of 2005, 20 months before the election, and offically filing on January 4, 2006.

“As a member of the General Assembly, I often wore a black-and-white shirt [signifying] I was a referee. I don’t want to be the referee any more; I want to be the coach,” Bissett said. “And the coach’s job is to bring everybody together and make a plan work.”

For this race, Bissett secured a professional volunteer campaign manager, Diane Rey, and works with a polling firm, Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies, both of Annapolis. They paper the press with e-mails and lure them to briefings.

Then there’s the volunteer Bissett Brigade. “We’ve got a lot of people out there — maybe 200,” Rey says, “because they believe in Phil.”

Everywhere Bissett goes — some 8,000 campaign miles thus far, by his calculation — he hauls a mobile billboard proclaiming his candidacy behind his bright blue Jeep Liberty.

Most days, Bissett says, he spends the hours between 2 and 5pm knocking on doors. What people see is a smooth operator who could have been sent out by a casting office. He’s got the kind of average good looks that work for late-night television hosts: a smile with a hint of arrogance and a shoulder seemingly cocked from the weight of the chip it carries.

He likes to express his conclusion aphoristically. For instance, his plan for education focuses on “the three Rs: Respect teachers; Rebuild communications; and Restore autonomy in the classroom.”

He’s got a slogan: Live here, Learn here, Earn Here.

It sounds glib, but Bissett will talk issues till the cows come home. Meeting the county Elephant Club on an early Thursday morning, he traveled from bond ratings to school bus schedules.

And he’s got money. Campaign finance statements earlier this year show that he built the second-richest fund thus far, drawing on the widest diversity of contributors. Between announcing in 2005 and filing in January 2006, he raised $140,000, He entered the election year with close to $70,000 in his campaign account.

Bissett carries the baggage of losing the county’s top job once. And overall, he’s lost as many races as he’s won, including his General Assembly seat in 1998.

His history of winning jobs by political appointment is another two-sided coin. His appointment to the General Assembly was a reward for volunteering his way up the Republican Party ladder.

Then, when Robert Ehrlich’s election as governor in 2002 gave the Republicans jobs to fill, Bissett benefited from a series of political appointments. From 2003 to May 2005, he worked at the Department of Natural Resources, the Motor Vehicle Administration and finally MARC, earning raises as well as administrative experience to build his case for this race for an administrative job.

But Bissett earned a reputation, too: as a hired gun because of his link to political firings in Department of Natural Resources — and one with a hair trigger.

Bissett’s the only one of this herd without a college degree. By the same token, voters could be drawn to his background as a working man — a former Giant Foods warehouse man and Teamster.

“Winning his party’s primary once has given Phil Bissett endless energy and dreams,” says Dan Nataf, director of the Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College. “So for him it’s a tickler problem. A whole lot of Republicans voted for him once. His thinking must be ‘if I can get my campaign organization started early and get to registered primary voters … they’ll give me another chance and I’ll do it this time’.”

John Leopold

‘I’m bipartisan. I’d be an Independent if I could.’

Banking on Victory

When tall, lean John Leopold dresses up as Abe Lincoln, he achieves two goals: he pays tribute to the most revered Republican ever and makes political hay out of his somber appearance.

Leopold’s face ought to be the most familiar in the race, though many would say it’s not. He’s stood on well-traveled, rush-hour street corners waving his white-on-red Leopold sign. He’s walked the streets of Anne Arundel County for 35 months. By his count, he’s knocked on 15,000 doors in neighborhoods from deep Southern Anne Arundel to his home turf in Pasadena.

“It’s the same strategy I’ve used since 1968 when I was first elected,” says Leopold, 63. “And every election, the same personal contact is the spine of my campaign.”

Door-to-door campaigning has served Leopold well. In 30 years, he’s won nine of 12 elections. He went into politics in Hawaii, where he’d studied Chinese in graduate school, rising from school board through House to Senate in 10 years.

In Anne Arundel County — where he finally settled— he’s been elected to the House of Delegates five times. Twice, he was the top vote getter among Anne Arundel County’s delegates. In 2000, he was named National Republican Legislator of the Year.

His reputation is that of an independent rather than party ideologue.

“I’m bipartisan,” he says of his approach. “I work with both Democrats and Republicans. I would be an Independent if could.”

That independent streak showed up in the recent General Assembly session, when he helped Democrats override Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s veto of a Baltimore school bill.

“Creative thinker” is how Leopold styles himself, and that, he says, is part of the reason he’s running to be county executive.

“This is a harmonic convergence,” he said, “to use my talent and creativity when it’s needed by taking things I’ve done at the state level and translating them to the grass-roots level.”

What he’s done, Leopold says, is extend technology scholarships beyond high schools to students already in college. He’s created a state-local payback for radium remediation in private wells. He’s capped community noise levels and funded more noise inspectors. He’s supported scholarships for the childen of fallen firefighters and law-enforcement officers. All touch-you-where-you-live laws.

Watch him greet a stranger who opens the door or work a room where he seems to get around to everybody and you’ll see that he seems to relish human touch.

“I ask them about themselves: Where do you work? Is there any issue you care passionately about? So when I meet a person, they believe I’m somebody who will listen, and if they have a problem I will call them, and I seem to have the ability to help them,” he says. “I convey that sense.”

In campaign finance, Leopold took an early lead in the race of elephants. He began the year with $450,000 in the bank. Nobody else came close.

Leopold, who has been successful with investments, is by far the biggest backer of his own campaign, having loaned himself half of his war chest to fund his aspirations.

Yet inside his party and out, handicappers expect this elephant to pull up short.

Fueling speculation, he has not formally declared his candidacy.

He says they’re wrong. Even when the door to a state Senate seat opened with Phil Jimeno’s retirement announcement early this month, Leopold says he bypassed the temptation to run for another seat he has coveted.

For the three months Leopold was occupied in the General Assembly, he cut back on his neighborhood visits. He suspended fundraising — while trumpeting the fact that his less well-bankrolled opponent, Boschert, did not.

Now he’s back politicking full time, but his campaign seems a one-man-band. He has a webpage, but no supporting team. His advisors, including former U.S. Rep. Marjorie Holt and Recorder of Wills George Nutwell — are unofficial. He says that he’ll extend his reach “as I round third base” with direct mail and telephone campaigning.

So far, from financing to campaigning, Leopold’s independence goes so deep that he looks like a loner. He alone among the candidates is unmarried; he alone has not been a parent to kids growing up and going to school in Anne Arundel County. Distanced from the governor, he’s even a loner in Maryland Republican Party politics.

“It’s hard to do shoe leather county wide,” Nataf said. “You can’t do it all by yourself. You need an organization of some sort. That could be his Achilles heel.”

David Boschert

‘To lead a county as its executive, one must first have served in it.’

Accepting the ‘Mantle of Leadership’

Dave Boschert, 58, is a big guy whose smile transforms his long face and puts a twinkle in his eye.

Like Leopold, he is giving up his seat in the House of Delegates, where he’s served two terms, beginning in 1999.

“It’s a sacrifice worth taking for people of the county,” he told Bay Weekly. “I love this county, and the time for me to move forward and accept the mantle of leadership is now.”

Boschert, a banker and businessman, says his previous employment at Arundel Center sets him apart. From 1979 to 1982, he chaired the busy county board of zoning appeals. As a Democrat, he won two terms on the County Council, representing the county’s west-central District 4 from 1984 to 1994. For his last two years, he chaired the council. He’s the only Republican to have won election to county office.

“To lead a county as its executive, one must first have served in it,” he says.

Born in Annapolis, now living in Crownsville, he’s lived in the county all his life and earned his first college degree from Anne Arundel Community College. He was a volunteer firefighter in the county. He was named the Annapolis Anne Arundel Chamber of Commerce’s legislator of the year in 2003.

“We’re all in the Anne Arundel family,” he likes to tell audiences in his mellifluous cadence. “I have a vision and a plan, but there won’t be change unless we as a group work together.”

If Leopold goes it alone, Boschert talks of himself as part of a collective. Of his decision to run for executive, for example, he says, “People started asking me to consider running as someone who has had experience in local government.”

He also points to his support from another voter bloc: the active-duty and retired military community.

A combat Marine veteran of Vietnam, Boschert is the only GOP candidate in the race who has served in the military.

“It’s important to have people who have served,” he says, “with Anne Arundel growing in the west and Fort Meade and the National Security Agency.”

One of his campaign promises is locating a veteran’s home on the Crownsville Hospital Campus.

The growing military presence in the county’s west is part of Boschert’s advantage in the race for county executive. He comes from a Republican stronghold, likely a reason he renounced the Democratic Party. Now, he calls himself a “common sense conservative.”

In his District 33, all three current delegates and the senator are Republicans.

“He’s in a treasure-trove district,” Nataf said. “There are more Republican votes there than in the north for John Leopold or the south for Phil Bissett. If they all rise to same level county wide, Boschert ends up with a few more votes.”

Listen to Boschert speak confidently of the pending “Boschert Administration,” you’d think he was about to be anointed county executive without even running.

Yet he’s tasted defeat, as in 1994, running as a Democrat for the General Assembly. He folded his tent in another race, a 2003 bid for a seat in Congress, in deference to Bob Duckworth.

In this race, Boschert’s campaign is still coming together. His business cards still have him a legislator; his webpage won’t be up until late in the month. His issue papers are works in progress.

Money has also been thin. He had $14,000 earlier this year. Yet in a fundraising appeal letter he mailed to Republicans in early March, with the Legislature in session, he linked his candidacy to other Republicans’ inability to raise money.

Leopold contends that it smacked of desperation and questioned the ethics of raising money during the General Assembly session.

Boschert, like others in the race, probably understands the premium voters place on ethics these days.

Honesty, integrity and ethical rectitude are the qualities voters most prize, according to the spring survey of attitudes in Anne Arundel Community College’s Center for the Study of Local Issues.

Tom Angelis

‘I’m a good manager. No other Republican in the race has led an Anne Arundel County department.’

‘A Sign From God’

One of the books Tom Angelis’ high school English students read this semester was Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff.

Angelis, 59, hopes his stuff is right as he aims for yet another career change.

Back in September of 2001, when a lot of outlooks changed, Angelis was ready for a new path.

Besides teaching, he’d been a D.C. policeman, a Senate aide, a salesman and the county parks administrator.

Maybe he’d run for the legislature, he thought. Then, with the kind of illumination that makes you slap your forehead in wonder, he said to himself, I’d make a great county executive.

For one reason and another — not the least was having a son across the street from Ground Zero on 9/11 — he postponed his announcement. Finally, with the year almost done, he says, “I talked to God.

“God, I’m not asking you to help me win,” he said. “But I need a sign. I want to know I’m doing the right thing.”

His sign came on December 31, in a phone call from a friend and supporter who, he said, had read his mind.

“Are you running for county executive?” she asked.

“I was stunned,” said the former police sergeant. Her prescience was his sign.

That 2002 Republican primary was Angelis’ first political race. He ran against the odds: “I started late, without name recognition and I didn’t spend a lot,” he says. Neither did his party anoint him.

He lost to Phil Bissett by 8,015 of the 28,977 votes cast. No surprise. But Tom Angelis was no longer an unknown; he was in the running.

Angelis insists that he’s going to win this time. But to do so, he’ll need to make his candidacy official: Like Leopold, he’s not formally filed to make the race.

In many other ways, his campaign seems a work in progress. He had almost no money on hand earlier this year and, like Boschert, has no home page to visit. Even his Wikipedia biography is a stump. His fundraisers — like one in March at Homestead Gardens — are family affairs, with his 79-year-old mother the official greeter.

Nonetheless, the affable Angelis is loved by more than his mother, a reason that he is not written off in this robust field.

“I’d be proud to call him county executive,” said Bob Duckwork in introducing Angelis — though not endorsing him — at Homestead Gardens.

Count Angelis’ assets, and you start with confidence. He’ll look you in the eye as he enumerates why he’ll be “the best manager the county ever had.”

Point one, chalked up by his talking fingers, is that his “whole life’s geared toward being a great administrator.”

There’s another art in making the human connection that keeps people listening while you talk. Salesman and teacher, Angelis has both down pat.

“I’m a good manager,” he says. “No other Republican in the race has led an Anne Arundel County department.”

In this field, Angelis’ two years as director of the Anne Arundel County Department of Recreation and Parks — he was appointed by county executive John Gary, Janet Owens’ predecessor — is a tangible asset.

So is his human connectivity.

That’s why listeners may say they’ve met a man they like and trust. Listening at an early forum sponsored by Congregation Kol Ami was Bill Weintraub, who before retirement was Angelis’ physician.

“He’s a straight guy,” said Weintraub. “I wish he weren’t a Republican.”

Tom Angelis is a plain man but not an uneducated one. He’s earned three degrees, the most recent — a master’s of education at UMBC last year.

Does the candidate who received a sign from God have a prayer?

“He must have felt he ran strong enough against Phil Bissett in 2002,” Nataf said, “that if, in a five-way race, he can just hold those 10,000 votes, that’s enough.”

Greg Nourse

‘I can do the job that has to be done to make sure the county doesn’t go down the toilet.’

I’ve done 98 Percent of the Work a County Executive Does

Greg Nourse is the maiden elephant in the race. With no political past beyond community association president, the 58-year-old school systems administrator is the bureaucrat’s candidate.

In the category of charisma, he’s not an Ehrlich, O’Malley or even a Bissett. He works a room like his shoes are pinching. His campaign manager is a novice, and his campaign is low on ready money: $566 at last filing, the remainder of $2,743 raised.

He’s got a web page, but except for the photo of his dog, reading it is like doing homework.

Why is this man running? Because, he says, “I can do the job that has to be done to make sure the county doesn’t go down the toilet. I’ve got eight years left to work before retiring. I want to do something to help the county.”

Nourse — a transplanted Illinoisian — has a fairly diverse experience of life in the fast-growing county, having lived 10 years in Crofton, six in Arnold and the last year in Glen Burnie. He’s been active and held office in his community associations. His two children and grandchildren have been educated in county public schools. Still,

that’s not much there to set him apart.

“I’ve spent my whole life in public employment,” says Nourse, who buttresses his quarter-century’s experience with a master’s degree in public administration.

He’s spent plenty of county money in a quarter century, 11 with the schools, 10 with the Anne Arundel County Budget Office and five with county Recreation and Parks.

As the county school system’s assistant superintendent for Business and Management Services, Nourse spends $160 million of our tax dollars a year, with $500 million more to spend on capital improvements over the next five years.

Clearly, he knows how to break a dollar, and many more, into pennies, nickels and quarters before dividing them among competing interests, even though bureaucratic experience has never exposed him to the bargains, trades and personalities of insider politics.

Beyond money, Nourse has 11 non-instructional departments in his kingdom, with 2,700 employees whose jobs include feeding 74,000 students, transporting and cleaning up after them.

“I deal with sexual assault, bus accidents, bad teachers and economic development on a daily basis,” he said. “I’ve done 98 percent of the work for this county you want a county executive to do.”

But will the math add up on election day?

“His problem is that no one’s ever voted for him,” said Nataf. “He’s got no track record of running a successful campaign, very little money and no natural constituency.”

Coming Soon: Democrats chasing the top county job.

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