County Executive Steve Schuh talks about some of his memories while growing up on Saturday, October 13, 2018.
It’s an overcast Saturday in Anne Arundel County. But for Steve Schuh, it’s another great day to live, work and start a business.
Schuh hops off the back of his red, white and blue pickup truck to knock on a voter’s door. His name is everywhere: On his hat, the truck, his shirt. An older resident opens the door. Schuh gives her his spiel.
“Hi, I’m Steve Schuh, the county executive,” he said, asking for her vote. “I’m doing my very best.”
During a few hours of door-knocking in Riviera Beach, Schuh doesn’t delve too deeply into political details while talking to residents. On one occasion he takes down the address of a house that has irritated neighbors. On another he listens to a resident complain about the state of federal health care, something Schuh can’t control.
Other times he tells them his name, that he wants to lower taxes and he is endorsed by Gov. Larry Hogan, a popular political figure among Republicans and Democrats. Schuh is running for re-election as county executive and facing Democratic opponent Steuart Pittman. Pittman owns a horse farm in Davidsonville.
“The people out here are registered Democrats, but really, they are conservative,” Schuh said. “If they know who I am, and what I’m about, they will vote for a Republican.”
So what is Schuh about? The county executive, 58, has lived in Anne Arundel County for 51 years. His political philosophy is simple: slow government growth and try to cut taxes and fees where it can be done. It’s a pragmatic, conservative approach that doesn’t come with the promise of sweeping tax cuts. But he argues that approach can achieve his vision: making Anne Arundel County the greatest economic engine in the state and one of the top in the country.
In doing this, Schuh has built himself an everyman image as the politician looking to lift all ships. But he also has built a reputation for being aggressive and sometimes controlling. He denies these characteristics.
There are certain issues he won’t back down on. Democrat Andrew Pruski, the only member of the County Council seeking a second term next month, said the council couldn’t get the administration to back a public nuisance bill allowing the police chief to declare crime-ridden hotels as public nuisances.
Schuh vetoed the bill after the council’s approval despite several amendments. An administration official at the time said they tried to make the bill work, but couldn’t find a path forward and worried about unintended consequences.
Other times Schuh tries to work with the council, Pruski said.
“He will talk on the phone with us,” he said. “We all represent our areas’ needs and interests. Sometimes you have to compromise.”
And, despite that same everyman image, Schuh is a powerful figure with sway in both the state and local governments. He has used that power to prop up allies while politically punishing those he feels misrepresents their positions.
Schuh was born in 1960. His father, Bob Schuh, was a golf professional who taught lessons. He has two siblings and has been married three times. He married Dania Blair in 2016, two years into his term as executive.
Schuh was born in Randallstown, with his family moving to Windsor Mill until he was about 7 years old. Then they moved to Crofton where Schuh spent a majority of his childhood. He recalled his father driving a golf cart to work and his own trips on a bike to the nearby pool. His parents paid for him to attend private school and college, a fact he would learn later after helping his father — who died in 2012 — with his finances.
It was that education that Schuh said drove him to care about education as a politician. While teachers union leaders would say Schuh isn’t increasing pay or staffing fast enough, Schuh said he is trying to grow the county’s education system responsibly.
“When you are a child, you never know what your parents did for you,” Schuh said, standing outside his old Crofton home. “People think I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth. But my family is the American dream. My parents were successful because they worked hard.”
As a child, Schuh was more interested in research than he was recreation, said Susan Zeiler, Schuh’s younger sister. She said their father would have to tell Schuh to put down the homework and go outside and play.
“I put my hand on the Bible and swear to you,” Zeiler said. “My dad had to say, ‘Steve go outside and ride your bike.’ ”
Zeiler said Schuh is the glue that keeps the family together. He sends out emails reminding the family of their mother’s birthday or the upcoming Easter holiday. Christmas Eve is held at Schuh’s Gibson Island home. That home is valued at $1.3 million, according to land records.
He does everything 100 percent, Zeiler said. She recalled one time — when the two were children — Schuh took Zeiler’s toys, pulled them apart and buried the pieces. He then gave her a treasure map to find her toys. Schuh said he didn’t remember doing that.
“At the time I found it very annoying,” Zeiler said, laughing. “Now I look back at all the effort. He had me going all over the place. That is kind of the way he does things. He doesn’t do things half-baked. He does it all the way with enthusiasm.”
After his youth, Schuh attended Dartmouth College, where he studied government and economics. He went into the health care investment business for a few years and then earned a master’s degree in business from Harvard University. His business education led to ventures throughout the county. He is well-known for the Mid-States Management Group, a company managing Blackwall Hitch, Greene Turtle and Roy Rogers restaurants in the county and Virginia.
County Councilman Derek Fink, R-Pasadena, said the county executive is a smart businessman who makes the right moves. Fink is the chief operations officer of Mid-States Management Group, owned by Schuh and several partners, and a longtime friend of Schuh’s.
He is willing to compromise and make smart county investments, Fink said.
“Never it was ‘my way or the highway’ and controlling,” Fink said. “I would say the exact opposite quite honestly. I have not seen that side of him. He has always been great to work with.”
Before entering public service, Schuh attended school at Johns Hopkins University, where he earned a master’s in educational studies. He thought about going into school administration but learned he would have to spend time in the classroom before taking an administrative position.
“You have to be a special person to be a teacher,” Schuh said. “I don’t have that talent. But I do have a talent for management.”
He found himself in politics. He was elected delegate for District 31 in 2006 and was re-elected in 2010.
Making it to politics is part of a philosophy Schuh incorporated from a boss back in his youth. He views his work as a delegate and county executive as a public service much like his charity work. Schuh has served on a variety of charity boards and runs the Schuh Family Foundation.
“He called me into his office and told me: Learn. Earn. Return,” Schuh said. “You spend one-third of your life learning, one-third earning and the last third returning.”
When County Executive John Leopold was convicted of abusing his office in 2013, Schuh put his name forward. But the County Council chose then-Republican Laura Neuman to take over the position.
Schuh challenged Neuman in the 2014 election, in a bitter race where both candidates attacked each other. It was this race that Schuh’s sharper edge comes into focus.
The Schuh and Neuman primary was a bitter election.
It’s unusual for Republican Party members to challenge each other in primary elections in which there is little controversy. But Schuh challenged Neuman, a political newcomer who had governed with few mistakes.
Schuh took his message to voters and told them he could get more done. He called Neuman a liberal and a fair-weather voter.
The two accused each other of shady campaign strategies. Neuman said the Schuh campaign made it personal by approaching her mother. Neuman had admitted she had a rocky relationship with her family.
Schuh said he has ended every campaign as a friend to his previous opponent, save for Neuman. He isn’t sure why but said Neuman maybe didn’t learn the “childhood lesson” that your “opponent is not your enemy.”
“I don’t believe there was anything inappropriate in that campaign by either side,” Schuh said. “She threw some pretty hard punches at me. I threw some pretty hard punches at her. I had every expectation at the end we would shake hands and still be friends as we were when we started the campaign.”
Neuman said her campaign only pointed out inconsistencies in Schuh’s campaign and that his attacks went further. Earlier this month, she announced an endorsement for Pittman.
“There is no equivalency between attacking a voting record and attacking my character,” Neuman said in an email. “Steve Schuh brought my rape case, marriage, residency and qualifications into his campaign against me. Bringing my estranged mother into the campaign, after decades of her not believing I was raped, made it clear there was no line he was unwilling to cross.”
Schuh’s aggressive tactics against Republicans didn’t stop after the Neuman race. Most notable is his relationship with County Councilman Jerry Walker, R-Crofton. At its most simple, Schuh and Walker don’t get along. Walker is often found on the opposite side of what the Schuh administration wants, and Schuh has accused Walker of voting against things he believes in just to stick it to the county executive’s administration.
Walker has denied doing that. He declined to comment for this story.
While Walker was running for delegate in the primary election this year, several fliers were sent out that misrepresented Walker’s position on certain issues. The fliers depicted Walker as a clown and linked him to a map full of marijuana leaf icons. They were released after Walker backed legislation that would have allowed dispensaries in commercial districts.
At a news conference that Walker held alone at the Arundel Center in Annapolis, he decried the tactics of his fellow Republicans.
“While the first (mailer) was full of twisted truths, distorted facts and sprinkled with lies, this one is full of outright lies that are intentionally misleading the public,” Walker said. “I am certain that the donors to the House Republican Caucus (political action committee) thought they were donating to build the party … not donating their hard-earned money to target fellow Republicans.”
The Republican House Caucus Committee — which created the fliers — received $7,000 from Schuh’s campaign between 2017 and 2018. The campaign donated $6,000 about three weeks after Walker introduced his legislation. The committee typically supports Republican candidates running for delegate.
Schuh said he didn’t have the patience for Walker because he wasn’t actually a Republican and was serving for the wrong purpose.
“(He) misrepresented himself and his true political identity for a dozen years,” Schuh said. “He made it his primary mission in the legislature to undermine our administration’s policy priorities even if he agreed with them for the sole purpose of being malicious. People who are so full of malicious intent have no business being in public service.”
But while he attacks Walker, Schuh has verbally and financially supported controversial councilmen Michael Peroutka, R-Millersville, and John Grasso, R-Glen Burnie.
Peroutka is controversial because of his extreme dedication to his religious views of government in which laws come from God, not man. This leads Peroutka to often vote against legislation because he views it as unconstitutional. Peroutka has incited controversy with his past membership in The League of the South, a group that advocates for an independent Southern nation.
The leader of that group made racist comments that Peroutka denounced at a council meeting. Before he was elected, Peroutka left the group after he said he discovered members had unfavorable views on interracial marriages.
Peroutka also supported U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, of Alabama, whom several women accused of sexual misconduct. Peroutka maintained his support for Moore, who eventually lost his race.
Grasso most recently incited controversy by sharing anti-Islamic posts on his Facebook page. Grasso has since apologized and visited with the Anne Arundel County Muslim Council. The Glen Burnie Republican has historically made controversial comments and even talked about punching bullies while sitting in his council chair. Schuh’s campaign gave Grasso $6,000 — the maximum allowed contribution — after Grasso announced he would run for Senate rather than county executive. Grasso faces Del. Pam Beidle, D-Linthicum, in the District 32 race.
Why support them and not Walker?
“John Grasso is motivated by only thing: He wants to make the community a better place. He wants to help people and animals,” Schuh said, also calling Grasso’s Facebook posts wrong. “How he goes about it is eyebrow-raising and sometimes objectionable.”
“If (Peroutka) was at the Constitutional Convention, you would find his political philosophy pedestrian compared to the other men in the room. He’s a throwback. He’s a person I would also say does not have a malicious bone in his body.”
On a Thursday in downtown Annapolis, Schuh sits down at Mission BBQ with pulled pork, brisket and a hamburger bun. He fashions himself a sandwich by hollowing out a portion of the bread and placing both types of meat inside. Then he places two sauces on the bread along with some mayonnaise. He tucks his tie into his shirt to avoid sauce splashes.
He shares a plate of $2 fries with a reporter for The Capital interviewing him.
“You want to share,” he asked. “I can’t eat the whole thing.”
As the incumbent, Schuh has both the advantage and disadvantage of running on his record. The county executive has touted record spending on school construction, lower taxes and a slower growth government. His opponent has accused him of letting development grow so out of hand the county’s schools and classrooms are full. Pittman has also accused Schuh of not hiring enough teachers, firefighters and police officers.
But Schuh said the slower growth of government alongside the growing economy is all part of the plan. It’s about growing responsibly and lessening the tax burden, he said.
Schuh said he has accomplished this by achieving several different goals. He cut the county income tax from 2.56 percent to 2.50 percent while also nominally dropping property tax rates throughout his administration. These savings aren’t much for residents as the most recent property tax rate cut saved average homeowners about $8. The income tax reduction saved about $50 for people earning the county’s median income of $87,430.
It isn’t much per person, but over the long run it means more money in the pockets of residents who spend it on businesses in the county, he said. His vision is to make the county the state leader in both per capita income and policy.
But the county’s success hasn’t dripped down to every department. Schuh’s administration has failed to boost the county police department. The department’s union has requested increased staffing and pay for years, saying the staffing levels force officers to work overtime. Since Schuh’s administration began, the number of officers on staff has barely changed despite adding additional open positions.
Recruitment has been hard both because of the national conversation around police as well as the county salary, which is why it was raised by 29 percent since 2014, Schuh said. But with a new police academy in the works and increased salaries, the county should see the staffing number rise in the future, he said.
Schuh also has made new investments into county roads and infrastructure. His administration raised road funding $4 million in its most recent budget to begin repairing roads, rather than maintain them.
As Schuh finishes a bite of his sandwich, Mission BBQ’s daily playing of the national anthem begins. Schuh stands and places his hand over his heart and sings along to the song. At the end, he looks up at the Maryland flag.
“Is that Maryland flag backward?” he asks, pulling out his phone. “When it is suspended like that vertically, the black spots are supposed to be in the upper left corner.”
Would he say something?
“That’s a good way of coming across as a d***,” Schuh said. “It is one of my pet peeves though. That is a legal requirement.”
As the waitress comes by to clean up the plates, Schuh speaks up.
“You know your Maryland flag is backward?” he asks. “It’s flipped over.”