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Arundel council's indecision highlights differences in candidates

When the Anne Arundel County Council began the process of selecting a candidate to fill a vacancy on the panel last month, they whittled the list of 10 applicants down to two. And then they got stuck.

The council has been deadlocked in a 3-3 tie between two candidates: Peter I. Smith, a Defense Department budget manager and a Marine reservist from Severn who is African-American, and Michael J. Wagner, a former state senator from Ferndale, who is white.

As the council prepares to take up the matter for the third time Monday, the two Democrats have sought to highlight their qualifications in the battle to replace Daryl D. Jones, who began serving a five-month federal prison term in January for failing to file nearly three dozen personal and business tax returns over six years.

The fact that the all-white, all-male council is faced with a choice between candidates of different races to replace Jones, only the second African-American to have served on the body, has injected the issue of diversity into the selection process.

Dan Nataf, director of Center for the Study of Local Issues at Anne Arundel Community College, said the council's indecision has been an "embarrassment."

"As much as the council may try to say race isn't factoring into their decision, it comes down to a young black man who could hold the seat, or you can go to an old white guy," said Nataf. "By my estimation, the ideal candidate is one that looks ideologically and maybe even in temperament as close to the one who left. That doesn't necessarily get us much closer to who is best qualified. That's what the council needs to decide."

Smith and Wagner share some similar political beliefs — both claim to be fiscal conservatives — but the similarities seem to end there. Smith, 31, moved to the county in 2003 and has never held political office. Wagner, 70, has lived in Anne Arundel for most of his life and was referred to as "the boss" for his hard-line stance in North County during his tenure in the state Senate.

Neither has lobbed any insults. Wagner has said Smith is qualified. And Smith has praised Wagner's years of service to the community.

Smith grew up in Harvey, Ill., south of Chicago. He signed up for the Marine Corps in April 1998, during his senior year of high school, and enlisted after graduation. He was stationed in Camp Lejeune, N.C., and then Japan. In 2003, he was sent to Fort Meade, and he has lived in Maryland ever since.

He studied nights at local community colleges and earned a bachelor's degree in information technology from the University of Phoenix, an online college. He and his wife, Rebecca, married in June 2008. They have two children — a girl, 6, and a boy, who is a month old.

He's now a Marine reservist and works as a budget manager for the Department of Defense at Fort Meade.

Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Crownsville Democrat, supports Smith, as do Councilmen Chris Trumbauer, an Annapolis Democrat, and Jerry Walker, a Gambrills Republican. Benoit has praised Smith for his military experience and said he represents "the future of Anne Arundel County."

While Smith is relatively new to Anne Arundel, Wagner's roots in the community run deep. He was born in Baltimore and lived in Pigtown with his family until he was about 4, when his father began an egg farm and moved the family to Anne Arundel.

He graduated from Glen Burnie Senior High School, and a year after his father died in 1962 he renamed the family egg business H&M Wagner & Sons., turning it into a full-fledged restaurant supply business. He also owns Michael's Eighth Avenue, a banquet facility; and Mikie's, a sit-down restaurant.

Wagner earned an associate's degree in 1996 from the University of Baltimore.

He and his wife, Carol, have been married for 49 years; they have two sons and five grandchildren.

He ran successfully for the House of Delegates in 1975 and served a two-year term before running for the Senate in 1977. He served a term but lost his re-election bid. He ran again and served in the Senate from 1983 to 1992.

Councilman John J. Grasso, a Glen Burnie Republican who supports Wagner, along with his Republican colleagues Derek Fink of Pasadena and Richard B. "Dick" Ladd of Broadneck, said Wagner's long history in the county is an asset.

Smith said he became interested in politics when he worked as a volunteer for former county Sheriff George F. Johnson, who ran unsuccessfully against County Executive John R. Leopold in 2006. He had begun thinking about running for office in 2014, he said, when the council vacancy arose.

Smith said his day job — keeping track of military finances — would inform his work on the council. His No. 1 priority as a lawmaker, he said, would be to ensure that "we're being as efficient as we can when we spend those dollars."

"I'm very conservative when it comes to spending money," he said. "I'm a guy who really wants to hold the line on any tax increase."

Wagner's political experience is not without controversy. In late 1986, according to a Baltimore Sun article at the time, Michael Stavlas and Thomas E. Riggin, who was a political adviser to Wagner, purchased 7.4 acres of land on Dorsey Road for $150,000.

In 1992, the partnership of Stavlas and Riggin sold the property to the State Highway Administration for $755,000, after the highway administration went to court to force the sale, as part of the east-west extension of Route 100 from Interstate 95 to Interstate 97. Stavlas and Riggin split the proceeds.

Political opponents questioned whether Riggin's relationship with Wagner had an impact on the deal. Wagner was also scrutinized by the state prosecutor in the 1980s over another land deal that benefited an associate. Kenneth Pippin, a Ferndale Democrat linked to Wagner's 1986 re-election campaign, sold the Baltimore-Annapolis Railroad right of way to the state to make way for the light rail. Pippin paid less than $1 million for the land in the early 1980s and sold it for $9 million. Wagner was never charged with any wrongdoing.

Asked about the accusations recently, Wagner dismissed them, saying they were "nonsense" and political fodder during an election.

In his pitch for the seat, Wagner has said he was encouraged to apply by a former top aide to Leopold, who has said he was aware of the prompting but did not personally lobby anyone on Wagner's behalf.

"I probably wouldn't have thought of it, to tell you the truth," said Wagner. "I was more worried about Daryl's situation. I'm a conservative Democrat. I know a lot of the regular Democrats wouldn't be jumping for joy with me in there. They'd rather have a person who's stepping to their tune."

Smith, meanwhile, said he's anxious to get the matter settled. "I wish they would just give me an opportunity."

Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

nicole.fuller@baltsun.com

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