Leopold adjusts to life as outsider, but doesn't dismiss a comeback
By By Pamela Wood and The Baltimore Sun
Jul 04, 2013 at 5:42 PM
He commanded Anne Arundel's billion-dollar budget and was considered a possible candidate for governor.
But in recent weeks, former County Executive John R. Leopold sat behind the glass panes of a small office at the Anne Arundel County Food and Resource Bank in Crownsville, answering phones, taking notes and performing other duties to fulfill 400 hours of community service — one of the last requirements of his sentence from a conviction for misconduct in office.
With that service complete — he logged 424 hours as of this week — Leopold is trying to find a new role in the community he once served, and betrayed.
He says he hopes to one day be cleared to run for office again.
"I feel that I still have a lot to offer, and would like to contribute in the way I know best," he said.
After a month in the county detention center and two weeks on house arrest, Leopold has been seen at public meetings, attended a rally for a county executive candidate and commented publicly on county affairs. He also penned an open critique of his successor, Laura Neuman, calling her claim of mediocrity during his administration "disingenuous" and "untethered from the facts."
Leopold, 70, has spent more than four decades either in office or running for office, and many are watching to see what he does next.
The Pasadena resident himself isn't sure, other than seeking to appeal his conviction. A hearing is tentatively scheduled for January at the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.
It's clear he hopes to have political influence again. Asked if he misses being in office, Leopold doesn't hesitate: "Yes, I do. Oh yeah."
"The thing I miss most is being able to pick up the phone and call a department head and say, 'Please take care of this constituent concern,'" Leopold said during a phone interview this week following his last shift at the food bank.
He said his time there, taking phone requests for help and passing them along to the staff, reinforced his desire to serve in public office. He said callers and visitors to the food bank frequently offered their support.
Unless his conviction is overturned, Leopold, a Republican, is barred from running for office for five years — the term of his probation.
Some political observers say his name is forever tarnished at the ballot box. County Council Chairman Jerry Walker, a fellow Republican, is among those who would rather not see Leopold in public life ever again.
"I think he needs to go away," Walker said.
Some say Leopold could rehabilitate his political image. Others see him continuing to wield influence, perhaps as a lobbyist.
"His whole persona was wrapped up in running for office and being in office," said Dan Nataf, a political science professor at Anne Arundel Community College. Nataf has watched Leopold for years and said the former executive never seemed to have hobbies or interests other than politics.
"I can certainly imagine this is a moment of deep soul-searching for him," Nataf said. "He's never had a plan B."
Leopold was found guilty of having county government employees do his political and personal tasks, including draining a urinary catheter bag he used after back surgery, and having police officers put up signs during a re-election campaign and collect checks from political donors.
Leopold's trial in Anne Arundel Circuit Court also revealed other tawdry allegations, including that he had police officers arrange liaisons with a mistress in parking lots and that the officers were forced to run interference between his mistress and his longtime girlfriend. Leopold was not convicted on those counts.
Upon conviction, Leopold was suspended from office. A few days later, he resigned before the County Council acted on legislation that would have ousted him.
His resignation ended a long career in public office that started 45 years earlier in Hawaii, when he was elected to the state school board. Over the years, he also was a state lawmaker in Hawaii and Maryland, a failed gubernatorial candidate in Hawaii and a two-time winner of the county executive's seat in Anne Arundel.
Shortly after he finished his jail term and house arrest, Leopold was seen at a community meeting regarding a bridge project near his home. And he attended the launch of Del. Steve Schuh's campaign for county executive for 2014.
Schuh said he's not in touch with Leopold and hasn't seen him since that campaign event, and seemed to distance himself from the former executive.
"Mr. Leopold has no role in my campaign and will have no role in my administration," Schuh said.
Leopold, who also has paid a $75,000 fine to the county as part of his sentence, has reached out to the media to comment on Neuman's performance, including her budget proposal and how she handled the state's decision to move the Department of Housing and Community Development away from its home in Crownsville.
"This is a guy who's going to have a hard time dealing with the fact he's lost his voice," said Todd Eberly, an associate professor of political science at St. Mary's College of Maryland. "That's something he's got to come to terms with."
Leopold did most of his campaigning alone, going door to door to meet voters. He held few fundraisers and self-financed most of his campaigns.
In over six years as county executive, Leopold rarely showed a personal side. He occasionally talked about his pets — a cat named Francois Rabelais and a Labrador retriever named Dora — and almost never appeared publicly with his longtime companion, a retired schools employeewho is a church organist.
"His life was politics," Eberly said. "He had reached the highest level of county politics … and then it just ends and ends in a way that makes him persona non grata in county politics."
Eberly is doubtful that Leopold can make a political comeback, even if he wins his case on appeal. "We tend not to be very forgiving of politicians who abuse their power or abuse their office," he said.
Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at Johns Hopkins University, has an idea for a new career for Leopold: Lobbying.
Leopold certainly knows the ins and outs of politics in Anne Arundel County and the State House. And, Crenson noted, other lobbyists have had problems with the law and then built successful lobbying practices. The top lobbyists in Annapolis include Gerard Evans and Bruce Bereano, both of whom have past felony convictions.
"It's not an occupational hindrance," he said.
Crenson said he isn't surprised Leopold is interjecting himself into political debates. He doesn't expect that Leopold will disappear quietly.
"He's not what you'd call a bashful person," Crenson said. "His difficulties with the law don't seem to have chastened him too much."
While Judge Dennis M. Sweeney's sentencing order included a ban on Leopold running for any local, state or federal office as long as he is on probation, some would like to see him back in the public eye.
Walter Caldwell, president of the Freetown Community Improvement Association along the Glen Burnie-Pasadena border, said Leopold's crimes don't compare with all he's done for the community, including securing money for street lights, road repairs and the renovation of a historic African-American school.
"We all make mistakes, but I would say the good outweighs the bad, by far," Caldwell said. "I hope that he can continue to be a public servant, because he's genuine in his efforts."
Leopold was so beloved in Freetown that the association's board wrote a letter praising him to the judge before his sentencing, Caldwell said.
Ann Mazzatenta,who has been a leader of two different community associations in northern Anne Arundel County, still thinks highly of Leopold. She said Leopold always helped people who came to him with requests, and she would welcome his return to public life.
"It didn't matter how much money you had or anything. He wanted to help, that's what made me very impressed," Mazzatenta said.
She saw Leopold quietly eating at a diner recently, but didn't want to bother him. "I guess he's thinking and thinking," she said.
George Nutwell Jr. of Annapolis, a former register of wills, also wrote to the judge on Leopold's behalf and has talked with the former executive since he's been out of jail. He's hoping Leopold wins his appeal and can run for office again.
"I think he's strong and he's got a pretty good attitude," Nutwell said. "He's been in politics most of his life and seen a lot of ups and downs."