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In Arundel, a breath of fresh air

Our view: Laura Neuman faces a major challenge in cleaning up after the Leopold scandal, but she has the confidence and determination for the job

4:48 PM EST, February 26, 2013

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Laura Neuman comes to the job of Anne Arundel County executive as an almost complete outsider to county (and Maryland) politics. She spent a career in the private sector, then less than two years working for a Democratic administration in another county before being named last week to a post that makes her the second-highest-ranking Republican in public office in Maryland. She has not worked on campaigns, much less run one of her own, and she is being greeted with no small amount of skepticism by the GOP. She could be in for a steep learning curve in both the policies and the politics of her new job.

But Ms. Neuman, who met today with The Sun's editorial board, may also be the kind of leader Anne Arundel County needs right now. She comes to office in the wake of the trial, conviction and resignation of John Leopold, whose political and personal misdeeds brought dishonor to the county and sapped the morale of the government he led. Ms. Neuman has no association with him or with his opponents, and that may help her be seen as an honest broker in the process of rooting out those who were complicit in the Leopold scandal — an effort she has already begun. She has no ax to grind and thus cannot be accused of seeking revenge.

Moreover, she has experience in taking over an organization and a reputation for not being afraid to break a few eggs to make an omelet. She has a history of working in start-ups in the tech industry, and she appears to view the Anne Arundel County government in the same light. She spoke of hiring the best people, getting rid of those who are holding the organization back, and creating a culture of openness and collaboration. Ms. Neuman said her top priorities are to reassure a shell-shocked government workforce, restore public trust in the government and make sure her agencies are providing the best, most efficient customer service — no easy task under the circumstances.

But Ms. Neuman does not appear easily daunted. She has a remarkable life story. She grew up in a large family of modest means in Baltimore and did not finish high school or college. She talked her way into a series of jobs and, eventually, into Loyola's MBA program. She was also raped at the age of 18 and spent the next two decades pursuing justice in what police considered a cold case. Eventually, authorities found her attacker and linked him to more than a dozen other rapes. He is now serving life in prison.

Today, Ms. Neuman, a mother of two who lives just outside of Annapolis, is poised, confident and determined to forge positive relationships with Republicans and Democrats alike.

That may prove easier said than done. While it would be difficult to have a worse relationship with the political establishment of either party than Mr. Leopold did, Ms. Neuman faces some challenges particular to her circumstances. She was selected among 16 Republicans by a County Council with a 4-3 Republican advantage. She was not, however, the first choice of any of the Republicans on the council and instead won the job on the strength of three Democratic votes and one Republican, Councilman Jerry Walker.

She will now face the prospect of working with a council in which two of the members (Mr. Walker and Republican Councilman John Grasso) are potential candidates for her job in 2014, and another councilman, Republican Derek Fink, has close ties with another politician who also plans to run in 2014, Del. Steve Schuh. Ms. Neuman has not definitively said whether she will run, but she will be presumed to be a candidate until she says otherwise, and that will seriously complicate her working relationship with the council and the county's General Assembly delegation.

Ms. Neuman also lacks a background in many of the aspects of county government she is now responsible for. She knows business development from her time in Howard County government, and she appears bright and inquisitive, but that doesn't make her deeply versed in the details of the Chesapeake Bay pollution diet or state school funding mechanisms. She needs to be careful not to stumble early on.

We offer two pieces of advice. First, Ms. Neuman should not underestimate the political challenges she faces. Not everyone is going to see her success as being in their interest. And second, she should do what she can to hang on to key staffers — like budget chief and acting County Administrative Officer John Hammond — who have the experience she lacks.

Ms. Neuman is a breath of fresh air for a county that needs it. Now she has 22 months to prove she is the leader for the next chapter in Anne Arundel's history.

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