When he was a young city councilman in Annapolis in 1982, John R. Hammond surprised family and friends by putting his hat in the ring for the job of Anne Arundel county executive.
He lost decisively to O. James Lighthizer, a Democrat who went on to serve two terms.
"I finished second, and the other guy finished just one place ahead of me," Hammond, a lifelong Annapolis resident, said with a laugh.
This week Hammond, 63, didn't have to knock on doors to assume the office he once sought. When a judge found incumbent John R. Leopold guilty on two counts of misconduct in office, Hammond, the county's chief administrator, inherited the job by virtue of the County Charter and an executive order Leopold signed this week.
With Leopold's suspension and potential removal from office, Hammond could serve as acting county executive until the County Council names a successor to fill the post until the 2014 election.
"A friend just told me, 'You didn't even have to run, and it only took you 31 years to get here,'" he said during an interview Tuesday in his fourth-floor office in the Arundel Center.
Hammond, the county's budget director from 1993 through last year, said his top priority is to win back the public's trust that county government can honestly and effectively provide the services they need.
"There are so many wonderful employees in this county, and I've already told my Cabinet that we need to encourage them in their work by reminding them how important customer service is in what we do," Hammond said.
"He's perfect for the job," said Annapolis Mayor Joshua Cohen. "He has run for public office and held public office. ... He understands the pressures public officials are under. But he's also a no-nonsense administrator who knows how to administer a billion-dollar budget."
Hammond, son of a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, earned a bachelor's degree in business and industrial management from the Johns Hopkins University in 1970 and an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School three years later.
He took a job in financial management in Annapolis, but in the late 1970s, he decided to run for City Council. He won a seat in 1977, at age 28, and ended up serving in that capacity for nearly 17 years.
In 1993, then-County Executive Robert Neall asked Hammond to become the county's budget chief, and he stayed in the job through February 2012, when Leopold named him chief administrative officer.
"He has a wealth of government experience," Leopold said when Hammond accepted. "He also has a sense of humor, which is imperative in this job. He knows how government works. The budget is the most important matter that we work with, and he knows the budget."
During his 19 years as an administrator, Hammond said, he was glad to know what officeholders go through, but also learned the joys of having an impact behind the scenes.
"I'm a recovering politician," he often jokes.
Hammond has a reputation as a hard-nosed administrator.
"Someone told me today that John makes people mad, but that's just because he has to tell people 'no' when it comes to money," said Ed Middlebrooks, a Glen Burnie attorney and former county councilman. "He has never been afraid of that."
Hammond, a Republican, has served three Republican administrations, including Leopold's, and one Democratic.
"He's one of those guys you have to respect, because he's so intelligent and he knows business so well," said Tom Marquandt, the retired editor and publisher of the Capital newspaper in Annapolis. "But he has been able to serve during administrations of both parties. That's one reason he has had this incredible survival rate."
During his years as a city councilman, he was not above raising his voice or getting red in the face when he argued a position — often in defense of his favorite issue, preservation of historic downtown Annapolis.
But Marquandt says Hammond has grown "subtler" in his approach over the years, and Hammond agrees.
"They say you get more conservative as you grow older. Maybe you also and mature," said Hammond, adding that he long ago decided he's most effective as a manager when he's "out there walking around and talking" to employees, offering as much constructive criticism as possible.
He has a whimsical side. Years ago, he and some friends lamented they had no float worthy of entry into the Annapolis Fourth of July parade. They pooled their money, bought an antique fire engine and later added four more.
Hammond established a tradition of appearing in the parade and — dressed as Santa Claus — using the engines during the Annapolis Fire Department's annual toy collection drive.
Toy fire engines and plastic firefighters are among the knickknacks that litter his office.
He once had a penchant for pink shirts — he's color blind and figured they went with everything — and the Baltimore Colts. "I like to say they haven't lost a game in 25 years," said Hammond, who has switched allegiance to the Ravens.
He and his wife, Louise, also a former City Council member and a Democrat, have two grown children — daughter Hunter, a teacher in Glen Burnie, and son Kemp, an Annapolis attorney — and spend much time doting over their two grandchildren.
Hammond concedes that his electoral loss in 1982 was painful. "If you're in politics, you do hate to lose," he says. Not long afterward, he promised his mother-in-law in writing he would never run for office again. She still has the vow on a piece of paper.
He said he has no interest in seeking the full-time position in 2014.
"I don't want to take a pay cut," he joked. His salary is about $150,000 a year, the county executive's is about $130,000.
But he'll keep the position as long as the County Council wants him to, he said.
Toward the end of an interview Tuesday, a county official entered and placed a document on his lap — a tax-related bill the council passed at its last meeting.
He looked at it, raised his eyebrows and gave it a quick read.
"I get to sign a law?" he said. "That's a first."
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