John Grasso

Anne Arundel County Councilman John Grasso. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, The Baltimore Sun / November 13, 2012)

Several voters have complained that Republican Anne Arundel County Councilman John Grasso bullied and berated them as they waited in line to cast a ballot, according to the county elections board.

In one case, a voter said Grasso yelled at him and jabbed a finger into his face while his children stood nearby. The voter said he'd cracked a joke about reaching the electioneering boundary where Grasso could no longer talk to him.

"Mr. Grasso then acted in a very unprofessional and degrading manner and began to resort to childish and loud name calling as he verbally accosted me," Lorne M. Young of Glen Burnie wrote in an email to election officials obtained by The Baltimore Sun.

Grasso acknowledged that he had been in confrontations while talking with voters, but he said the actions described by Young were in response to rude behavior. No complaints accuse him of breaking the law.

Young's complaint was one of several lodged with state and local election officials about the way Grasso behaved outside an early-voting center at North County High School in late October, said Anne Arundel County Election Director Joseph A. Torre III. He forwarded the complaint to the County Council, where it does not appear that Grasso could face any formal discipline.

In an interview, Grasso said he spent four hours talking to voters and the man who "made a smart remark" about the electioneering boundary was one of three confrontations he had that day.

"He said something to me, and I fired back," Grasso said. "If you can't take it, don't dish it out."

In a separate incident he described, Grasso said a "self-serving" voter called him a "loud person" and asked him to go away. But, he said, other voters piped up that they wanted to hear his remarks.

"It's called free speech," Grasso said. "It's that simple."

Young, who is represented by Grasso, said he tried to defuse the situation and his 11-year-old son felt compelled to defend him when Grasso called him "an idiot." Grasso said Young was rudely suggesting he leave.

The confrontation began when Young told Grasso he had already made up his mind on how to vote on 15 ballot questions that amended the County Charter. Grasso called the man "selfish" for rejecting his offer to explain the amendments.

"That guy is an idiot," Grasso said, acknowledging he knows that Young is a constituent. "Please don't vote for me. I'd rather not win than have that guy support me."

Young said Grasso particularly wanted to tell voters about an amendment that stripped line-item veto power from the county executive. Voters reined in the executive's power to delete portions of most legislation without overturning an entire bill.

"I told him my purpose here is to help," Grasso said, recalling that he told Young. "I can't help that you're a know-it-all."

Grasso's conduct drew concerns from his fellow council members and voter-rights advocates.

"It's a terrible example to set," said James Browning, Mid-Atlantic director for Common Cause. "Elections are a time for people to resolve their differences in a civil way. He's setting an example to his constituents that it's okay to be abusive."

Election officials forwarded Young's emailed complaint to the council's leadership for response. The portion of the County Charter that deals with the council makes no mention of discipline for conduct outside of council meetings. Grasso, one of four Republicans on the council, is in line to become chairman in December.

"It's completely beyond the pale that this guy is attacking his own constituents," said Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Democrat. "If it was about illegal immigration or even gay marriage, I might be able to write it off as John was being emotional about something he really cares about. But line-item veto?"

Grasso's aggressive style has caused friction before. During a public hearing in 2011, a retired firefighter threatened to slap him. With less than a year in office under his belt, Grasso received a re-election challenge from a resident offended by Grasso calling part of Glen Burnie "the new ghetto" during a debate over low-income housing.

The councilman deliberately does not mince words. In a 2010 instance, Grasso called Superintendent Kevin Maxwell "pathetic" for not returning a $19,000 raise to taxpayers at Grasso's request. Grasso had also described his ultimately unsuccessful campaign to recover the raise by quipping, "I'm like a pit bull attached to his butt cheeks right now."

Grasso, who has contemplated a 2014 run for county executive, said he doesn't regret how he handled the confrontations and that he was taking an opportunity to help voters understand a crowded ballot.

"If everyone had a problem with what I was doing, I would have turned around and left," Grasso said. "But only three people out of 700 had a problem? I say that's one heck of a good deal."

ecox@baltsun.com