A bearded, self-described liberal Democrat has demonstrated that even in Carroll County voters ultimately respond to results rather than labels. How else can you explain Lloyd Helt Jr.'s successful 15-year political career in Sykesville?
Yes, he may have done a few goofy things -- declaring Sykesville a nuclear-free zone in 1982, for one. But he racked up a long list of practical accomplishments too, such as locating state and federal money to build a much-needed storm drain system and to renovate the town's railroad and police stations.
Mr. Helt also demonstrated to Sykesville's residents that government needn't be insensitive, arbitrary and bureaucratic. He did his best to make government a humane and helpful institution.
"I wanted to show people that one person does matter, and I wanted to do my part -- on a small scale -- to make this a better place," he said. Mr. Helt probably would have been re-elected to a fourth term as mayor had he chosen to run again. In an effort to end a commuter marriage -- with him living in Sykesville during the week and commuting on weekends to Annapolis to be with his wife, Annapolis Alderwoman Ruth Gray, a Republican -- the couple decided to temporarily abandon their political careers.
Since his life-long desire has been to practice law in a small town, Mr. Helt will continue to maintain his well-established legal practice in Sykesville. But this summer the couple will be moving to Westminster -- neutral political territory.
Sitting in his storefront office overlooking Main Street, dressed in a sports shirt and wearing deck shoes without socks, Mr. Helt reflected on his tenure in Sykesville town government and on local government in general.
To be well-received by the people, Mr. Helt thinks that government should not be so alienating. Large local governments such as those in Baltimore or Howard counties are too remote from many residents' concerns, he believes.
"Those large governments are terrible. They are rotten to the core," he says, laughing at the harshness of his words.
"There is no local representation. Does Baltimore County really xTC represent the interests of Towson? Towson residents would be better off with their own government."
Conservatives glorify local government because they believe that the best government is the most local government. But Mr. Helt's intense identification with local government is all he shares with ideological conservatives.
Since moving to town, Mr. Helt has spent considerable time thinking of ways to improve Sykesville's quality of life. The mayor considers his convincing Sykesville residents to hire a full-time town manager as his greatest achievement. It resulted in a town that is better managed than it was in the late '70s, when Mr. Helt began his political career as a town councilman.
"We had a town government that was based on volunteers, but county, state and federal regulations have become so complicated that someone has to work full time to keep up with them. Also grantsmanship is indeed an art, and we needed a manager to apply for grants and loans," he said.
While Mr. Helt was president of Maryland Municipal League in 1985, liability insurance rates skyrocketed. He asked the league's staff to explore the possibility of establishing an insurance company that would offer affordable liabilibity insurance to Maryland's local governments. The approval process took about two years, but insurance rates for about 140 local governments in the state have been reduced. Sykesville halved its annual premiums, he says.
"It is a matter of listening to good ideas and then making a case for them. Old beliefs die hard, and you have to keep on persuading people of the weight of these new ideas," he says. "After time, some things just become evident. It takes a lot of persistence and persuasion.
"Government can be a positive force to help people. I made government work much to the chagrin of my conservative friends. I showed that government can work well at a low-cost."
Mr. Helt clearly loves the intimacy of town government. He delights in retelling the story of how he purchased his three-story office/home on Main Street.
One of the town's landlords, though no fan of his politically, stopped him one day while he was jogging. "He said, 'I have got just the building for you.' He showed me this building, and I knew immediately that this was what I wanted."
He settled in Sykesville after graduating from law school nearly two decades ago. "I never wanted to join a big-city law firm. My ambition was to have a storefront practice in a nice small town. And that is exactly what I have got here."
Mr. Helt has not disclosed his future political plans, but it is clear in a two-hour conversation that he will probably re-enter politics or government at some point. He is currently chairing the county's citizen committee examining the feasibility of a waste-to-energy incinerator.
He is also exploring the possibility of raising $50,000 to finance a six-performance season of the Annapolis Symphony in Carroll County.
"I believe strongly in community involvement. We are fragile people in a fragile world, and we have to reach out to others. If we don't, we aren't going to make it," he said. "For my own mental health, I will have to contribute and grow."
Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.