Anne Arundel County

In Arundel, Leopold seeks to slip by challenger Conti

When the candidates for Anne Arundel County executive were asked at a recent debate to pose a question to their opponents, the incumbent John R. Leopold pitched quite a softball to his Democratic challenger, business executive Joanna L. Conti, asking her to talk about the different political environments in Maryland and Colorado, where Conti lived until four years ago.

If Leopold might have meant to point out that his opponent is new to Maryland, Conti, who ran for Congress in Colorado but has never held political office, took a more aggressive stance. She asked the Republican county executive about a pending lawsuit alleging Leopold had sexually harassed a former county employee.

Leopold responded with a familiar quotation from George Washington.

"To persevere in one's duty and be silent is the best answer to calumny," he said.

The candidates' differing campaign styles have defined the race. Leopold, who has a significant fundraising advantage and is relatively popular for his commitment to constituent service, has mostly ignored Conti. Meanwhile, Conti has attempted a balancing act of introducing herself to voters, while pitching her vision for the county and making a case for ousting Leopold — mostly with criticism of his record on spending and the sexual harassment allegations, which he denies.

"There's an awful lot of concern with Mr. Leopold and if he's morally fit to run the office," said Conti, a 53-year-old business executive who lives in Annapolis. "It's a very, very winnable election."

Anne Arundel voters will decide on Nov. 2 who will lead the county for the next four years. Recent polling shows Leopold leading by double digits, though one poll showed a high number of undecided voters. A recent Baltimore Sun poll found that 46 percent of likely county voters viewed Leopold as "favorable" with 26 percent viewing him as "unfavorable," and 16 percent saying they had no opinion. A few people — 7 percent — said they didn't recognize his name and 4 percent said they were unsure.

"He's got the least aggressive campaign of any incumbent I've ever seen," said Dan Nataf, director of the Center for the Study of Local Politics at Anne Arundel Community College. "She's like a fly hovering around his head. He says, 'I'm just going to ignore you.' It seems smart on his part."

Nataf said Leopold has cast himself as a sort of untouchable, "in the vein of [U.S. Sen.] Barbara Mikulski," ignoring opponents, making the obstacles that Conti faced from the outset — including lack of name recognition — seem insurmountable.

Leopold, meanwhile, appeared confident and relaxed in a recent interview, dismissing attacks.

"In politics you have to navigate the sharp elbows and the egos and the toxic envy," said the 67-year-old Pasadena resident. "It's part of the process."

Leopold, who was elected county executive in 2006 after 20 years in the House of Delegates, has emphasized that he kept his promise not to raise property or income taxes despite the fiscal downturn. Although he avoided layoffs, most county employees were furloughed. Leopold, who calls himself a "pragmatic conservative," was endorsed by influential unions representing county workers and teachers and by the League of Conservation voters. Conti has received endorsements from about 20 unions, including the Metropolitan Baltimore Council AFL-CIO.

Conti says Leopold has acted "extremely irresponsibly during the economic downturn."

"He's basically stripped cash out of every pot that exists in the county," she said. Conti says Leopold has "overspent" revenue by $184 million in the past three years, by spending money the county has put aside for other purposes. She vows to cut $90 million from the budget, though she offers no specifics, saying that she won't know what to cut until she gets in the trenches. She also points to the fact that one bond-rating agency recently downgraded the county's rating from the highest rating, AAA, to AA+.

Leopold dismissed Conti's accusations, saying it's unrealistic to cut $90 million from the budget. And although one bond-rating company did downgrade the county, it still maintains a AAA rating from one other agency. Leopold points out that it was under his leadership that the county received its first ever AAA rating, which the county says has saved taxpayers $500,000 in interest annually.

Michael Souder, political director of the Anne Arundel County Democratic Party, said Conti is "continually gaining ground" and "still very competitive."

"Joanna is a strong leader who will restore integrity to our county executive's office and make the tough choices needed to lead our county through the next four years," Souder said.

Of Leopold, he said, "He's spent almost every dollar the county has in savings. If a family of four spent all their savings, instead of making the tough choices, I don't think anyone on Earth would categorize that as responsible."

Another criticism of Leopold hits at his personality. He rejects his reputation as a political loner, an attribute that Conti criticized as a deterrent to getting more legislation through the County Council.

Leopold said the characterization is a "falsehood," saying, "You cannot accomplish what I've accomplished without thorough collaboration and consultation. It's just impossible."

In the final days of campaigning, both candidates have bought television advertising, each putting out a commercial highlighting their accomplishments. In two mailers, Conti has stepped up her attacks on Leopold, highlighting the recent headlines of the sexual harassment suit. In a Leopold mailer, the county executive, who has been an outspoken opponent of illegal immigration, quoted an anti-immigration website calling Conti "the illegal alien lobby poster girl" — a rare acknowledgment of his opponent. Conti fired back, criticizing him for citing what she called a "racist" group in his campaign literature.

Also running is Green Party candidate Michael Shay, an environmental activist from Shady Side who has concentrated his campaign on environmental issues. Shay, who is 60, has registered single-digit support in recent polling.

Local Democratic officials have offered support for Conti. Gov. Martin O'Malley, who is immersed in his own re-election bid, recently had coffee and sign-waved with Conti in Annapolis. Annapolis Mayor Joshua J. Cohen, whom Conti has praised as "innovative," saying she would follow his lead with responsible cost-cutting, recently held a Conti fundraiser.

Janet S. Owens, a Democrat who served as county executive for two terms, toyed with running against Leopold, but ultimately decided against it. Owens, who Leopold aides admit would have been a formidable candidate, said she thought she would have to engage in negative campaigning to win, which didn't appeal to her. Owens notably, does not support Conti, saying she has "paid no dues in the community."

"I don't think she's prepared to be county executive," Owens said.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the former governor and fellow Republican who is challenging O'Malley for the governorship, has endorsed Leopold.

Despite general satisfaction among voters with Leopold, issues surrounding women continue to dog him.

In August, former county worker Karla M. Hamner filed a $10 million lawsuit against Leopold alleging sexual harassment, discrimination and workplace retaliation. Leopold says he is innocent. The case is pending in federal court.

It's not the first time the unmarried Leopold has been accused of inappropriate conduct. Last year, he was accused of sexually harassing a state employee at county headquarters, and an anonymous 911 caller reported possible sexual activity in what turned out to be one of Leopold's government-issued cars. He was not charged with a crime in either instance and has denied any wrongdoing.

But the claims have offered Conti an opportunity to put Leopold on the defensive. In a recent Conti mailer, a young woman is shown holding her head in her hands with the question, "Would you want your daughter working for Leopold?"

The county executive said he thinks Conti's ads are "mean-spirited" and they have actually helped him. Voters, he said, are turned off by the attacks, and have "more serious" issues to worry about.

"I'm used to so many things in politics," Leopold said. "It just runs off my back."

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the number of years Joanna L. Conti has lived in Maryland, as well as the number of ratings agencies that have given Anne Arundel County a AAA rating.

The story also made an incorrect reference to the proportion of registered Republicans to Democrats in Anne Arundel County. Democrats held a nearly 25,000-voter advantage, according to the most recent state statistics. The Sun regrets the errors.