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History roundtable reunites former Laurel mayors

Kevin Leonard, center, moderates a discussion last month by former Laurel mayors (from left) Robert DiPietro, Joe Robison and Mike Leszcz; and current Mayor Craig Moe.
Kevin Leonard, center, moderates a discussion last month by former Laurel mayors (from left) Robert DiPietro, Joe Robison and Mike Leszcz; and current Mayor Craig Moe. (Photo by Jeffrey Leonard)

Last month, I had the honor of moderating an informal roundtable discussion with current Mayor Craig Moe and former mayors Bob DiPietro, Joe Robison and Mike Leszcz at Partnership Hall, which was sponsored by the Laurel History Boys. Former mayor Dani Duniho, who lives in Tucson, Ariz., could not attend in person, but provided answers to the questions in an earlier phone interview. Her answers were read during the discussion. The group represented the office of the mayor from 1978 to the present, with the exception of the years 1994 to 2001, when the late Frank Casula was in office. The transcript has been edited for space. To see a video of the entire discussion go to the Laurel History Boys web site laurelhistory.com.

When did you move to Laurel, and did you attend any schools in Laurel?

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Joe Robison: I was born in Laurel. My father was born before me in Laurel in 1898 so I'm a Laurelite. I went to school in Laurel and went to Laurel High. I went to St. Mary's — St. Mildred's at that time—then Laurel High.

Bob DiPietro: I was born at Fort Meade. My father came here as a concert trumpist for the United States Army Field Band. When I was born [we] were living on Thomas Drive. [I've] lived in Laurel my whole life. Went to St. Mary's first through eighth grade, was supposed to go to Pallotti as everybody else in my family had done, but I graduated from Laurel High.

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Mike Leszcz: I came back to Laurel in 1969. Went away in the military, got to college and came back and lived on Prince George Street ever since. That's where my wife was born. I attended school in Anne Arundel County.

Craig Moe: I was born and raised in Prince George's County. I lived in Riverdale from '59 to '65 and in 1965 my parents moved to South Laurel. They are still in the Montpelier area. I went to Montpelier Elementary, went to Eisenhower Junior High School, and then graduated from Laurel Senior High School in 1977. So been in the city of Laurel for over 30 years.

Dani Duniho: I came to Laurel in 1964 and met my husband at NSA.

Before your first campaign, what made you want to be mayor?

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Duniho: I did not want to be mayor. I jumped in from the City Council because I didn't want the other person to ruin things. I thought there was a need.

DiPietro: I'd gotten involved with the city back in my teen years. I went on to the Council to replace Frank Casula, who had gotten elected at the County Council level. There were two other young men on the Council at the time, Jim Cross and Craig Horn. The average age of the Council changed pretty dramatically so after four years the opportunity presented itself to run for mayor. So we got together and ran as a ticket and came on board in 1978.

Robison: Craig, Steve Turney and I ran for City Council in 1988 and all three won. I decided I was going to stay on the Council as a council member and Steve Turney was going to run for mayor. [But] he decided he wasn't gonna run, I was gonna run for mayor. I was the only one available out of the group. So I ran for mayor.

Leszcz: We were standing outside the Barkman Building — a tornado came through and Mayor Casula said to me, "I don't feel too good. I'm going home." And the next thing I know I'm being sworn in as mayor by Judge Nichols up in Upper Marlboro because Frank was pretty sick.

DiPietro: I have to tell a story about Craig. When I was mayor I was also a member of the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department. I gave a speech about us not discussing Fire Department business in public because I'm hearing stuff on the street that shouldn't be out on the street. A guy in the back of the room who was a lot younger than I was rose to be recognized — a guy by the name of Craig Moe. And he said, "The one thing we don't need around here is politicians telling us what to do."

Moe: I ran for mayor because I thought I could make a difference after serving on the Council and the way that we are structured here in the city of Laurel — the way our government is structured. A lot of it starts with the mayor and the mayor's office.

What part of being mayor did you hate?

Leszcz: If you have a full-time job, it's very difficult because there's not enough time. The reading for both a councilperson and the mayor is extraordinary. As mayor, you're dealing with the additional administrative problems and the executive problems.

DiPietro: There was absolutely not a thing I hated. [But] I had a lady call me at 2 a.m. because she had called the police department because the noise in the adjoining apartment — they were having a party. I called the Police Department and said, "Just go over there and shut this party down." The next day [I was with] Congresswoman Gladys Spellman and she said, "You look terrible." I said, "That's because I didn't go back to bed when this lady called about loud music in an apartment." She said, "You know how to fix that, don't you?" I said, "No, I don't." So on the following weekend I called the lady back at 2 a.m. and asked if there were any loud parties. She said, "No."

Moe: I wanted say Bob passed that on to me. I've used that once or twice myself. For me one of the toughest things I have to do is to say "no." We only have a certain amount of funds and we only have certain amount of resources right now. It's very difficult so we try to find county services or state services. So it's tough and every one of us, I'm sure, has dealt with that.

Duniho: I can't say that I hated anything. Being a woman caused problems sometimes. There was a man who wanted the mayor to do something so I tried to tell him and he said, "I don't want to talk to you. I want to talk to the mayor." And he was really rude and said some dirty things to me. So I said, "Well, you'll have to find another mayor. Goodbye."

What is the most outrageous favor or request you received? Duniho: I got a call from an older woman whose sister had been in the Army and passed away. Her other sister had been buried somewhere in Laurel but she didn't know where. She wanted help to bury the sisters together. She gave me the wrong information so before I could do anything she sent what was left of her sister in a box to my office. My staff wouldn't come in my office when they found out what was in the box. The military finally took care of it. I did send flowers.

Moe: I'm not sure I can identify one but there's always several people that always want something. And they remind me about all the taxes they pay. They remind me before they finish that they voted for me and that I better do what they need. And then I say, "Where do you live?" and they'll say, "South Laurel." And I said, "Can't help you and you didn't vote for me."

DiPietro: I don't think there was anything terribly outrageous but the one request I got all the time was to marry people. People assumed the mayor could marry someone. That would happen on a regular basis. Somebody would call up and say, "But you're a mayor."

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Robison: The call from Mr. Cooke when the Redskins were coming to Laurel. They used our office as a headquarters. Kristie took the call and said, "Mr. Cooke's on the phone. He wants to talk to you." I said, "Ahhh — that's not him." So I picked up the phone and I recognized his voice.

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Leszcz: People know where I live. They will knock on the door if they want something. Of course, it's something that we can't do in the city. It's a Landlord-Tenant Act, it's a social services.

What was the biggest crisis or emergency you faced while in office?

Leszcz: The mayor [Frank Casula] passing away was a shock. He was a family friend. But we're looking at the Barkman Building. It's half torn apart because of the tornado. Some people wanted it torn down. It's a good thing we saved it because it's back on the tax rolls.

Moe: We had the big snowstorm that really took its toll on the city forces. We've had major flooding and if we could get WSSC to keep the dam closed we'd be a lot better off. They caused us some real damage in the Main Street area. If I had to pick one, it would probably be the snow. It really took its toll on us, on resources, on staffing and in money.

Robison: Budget. It was 1990-94 and the economy was really bad in those days. We kept the budget as it was and kept the rate as it was without going up too high. When we first got elected, we dropped the rate to 5 cents. When Frank came in as mayor, he got mad because I didn't save any money for him.

DiPietro: I guess when I came in the late 70s, the crisis was the national financial structure. One of the things that got me to run was how bad Main Street was. We drew federal funds that Congress had allocated in a grant to the city so we began the process to tear up Main Street.

Duniho: The great repaving of Main Street occurred, taking a very long time. That lasted about a month until the WSSC announced that they suddenly needed to tear up the new corner at C Street to do some work underground. The urge to do damage to the WSSC was strong in my heart.

DePietro: Roland Sweitzer [was] my city administrator. I think every one of us has lived through the aggravation of paving the street and having the WSSC dig it up 15 minutes later. Roland said "Let's get a meeting with the general manager and take him on a tour and show him." The head of the WSSC showed up and Roland also had three cups of coffee. So he started driving through the city to talk and show these potholes. I noticed when I opened my lid my cup was half full. But the guy from the WSSC opened his lid and the coffee was just about to fall over the sides and we hit every pothole. Roland covered that man in coffee.

When you became mayor, was there any part of the job that surprised you?

Moe: I was on the Council for 12 years and when I became mayor I thought I understood city government and how it runs. It is entirely different from the Council to the mayor position.

Leszcz: Having to deal with the personnel issues along with the city administrator. I think that's the big change from going from the Council to the mayor, because the buck stops on the mayor's desk. As a councilperson, you can throw it over the wall to the mayor, or one of the staff.

Robison: As Bobby Joe [DiPietro] says, you learn every day when you're mayor, something new, something better. And when you get finished, you're ready to start over again."

DePietro: You think you know. Otherwise you wouldn't run. Both Jimmy Cross and Craig Horn were notorious for pulling pranks. We got a call one day and the lady said she was Ronald Reagan's secretary. Kristie [Mills] said, "The president of the United States' secretary is on the phone." Just before that Jimmy Cross had called my office at the bank and said, "Have him call this number. My name is Smith with Smith and Smith law firm and I'm calling him about his paternity suit." So my secretary wouldn't talk to me for two hours—she thought I had a paternity suit. But as soon as I saw the number I knew it was a joke. So I assumed this phone call was from Craig Horn. Kristie said, "They're on the phone" so I picked up the phone and this very nice lady said, "Mayor DiPietro?" I said, "Yes." She said, "This is so-and-so, secretary to President Reagan. He'd like you to come to the White House tomorrow at 10 a.m.for a meeting with the president." So I said to this lady, "Just hold on one minute. Let me look at my calendar." So I shuffled the paper for a minute and I said, "You know I've got a couple of options tomorrow and I think it would more fun to go over to Dr. James' and have a root canal" and I hung up the phone. [laughter] And Kristie looked at me and I said, "Don't worry about it. It's Craig and Jimmy." About three minutes later Bob Kaiser said, "Mayor, we just got a visit from the Secret Service. Apparently you're going to the White House tomorrow." She stood in front of my desk and said, "I think you hung up on the president's secretary." So the phone rang a few minutes later — the lady was kind enough to call back. Kristie explained the whole situation. The irony was the next morning at 10 I was at the White House with the president of the United States. There were eight or nine mayors from around the country. When he got to me, he shook my hand and asked me how my root canal was.

History Matters is a monthly column rediscovering Laurel's past. Contact Kevin Leonard at info@theleonardgroupinc.com or 301-776-9260.

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