Republicans losing more than candidate for office


With the political passing of Robert R. Neall, the Maryland GOP loses more than a candidate for governor.

It loses a genuine good old boy, a crossover politician of the sort that successful Republicans often have to be in Democrat-dominated Maryland.

It loses someone who cared less about party doctrine than being an effective legislator.

As a state delegate, Mr. Neall bought into the Annapolis ethic of nonpartisan policy-making. Some adherents of this approach worship a governmental trinity: the Democratic leadership system, the state's AAA credit rating and the Manhattan, roughly in that order.

Mr. Neall had reveled in this work-hard, play-hard system. Legend held that he could tie a knot in the stem of a maraschino cherry with his tongue. With his mind, he could untangle the thorniest fiscal and political problems.

He was a member of the House of Delegates for 12 years and he has been the Anne Arundel County executive for three. He served in the assembly when Republicans could caucus in a phone booth. Yet he was included in the highest policy-making tribunals of the Democrats.

His adaptability would have helped to make him a formidable candidate for governor. But now the 45-year-old father of four says family financial concerns force him to look for higher-paying employment in the private sector.

That explanation does not cover all the political considerations.

He faced an expensive and, perhaps, crippling primary election in his own party. And Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, the Democrat most Republicans wanted to face, had, himself, withdrawn.

A month ago, with Mr. Schmoke apparently in, Mr. Neall confided to associates that he was running. Mr. Schmoke was thought to be weakened by an indifferent record as city administrator, by suburban antipathy toward the city's need for financial help and by racial considerations. Mr. Schmoke is black.

With that matchup in the offing, Mr. Neall seemed to think his main problem was preserving his own party's unity by trying to engineer the withdrawal of Helen Delich Bentley, the 2nd District congresswoman, from the GOP race for governor.

Then Mr. Schmoke walked away. Instantly, there was talk that Mr. Neall's ardor was cooling. On Friday, he got out of the race for governor and out of politics altogether, for the moment at least. He won't run again for county executive.

Thus, a man whose abilities seemed ideally suited for the politics and mood of the 1990s chose a self-imposed term limitation.

In Anne Arundel, he presided over the sort of downsizing that may be the major function of governors the rest of this decade. And the politics he knew best were legislative.

In that realm, personality and talent were far more important than partisanship. A quick-witted banker called Bobby by everyone, he was a match for the best in Annapolis.

He knew the budget. He had been in private industry. He had been an executive at the Johns Hopkins Health System. He was the quickest of studies in a world that treasures getting to the core of complex matters. Reporters sought out his explanation, insights and quotes.

Ben Cardin, the 3rd District congressman and former House speaker, respected and used him. Mr. Neall was almost a member of the House leadership under Mr. Cardin.

"Bobby's a friend of mine, a good friend," Mr. Cardin said in an interview last year. They didn't disagree on much, he said.

"Just his choice of party."

His best friend in Annapolis has been Democrat R. Clayton Mitchell, the current speaker, also a Democrat. Under Mr. Mitchell, Mr. Neall was even more influential in legislative matters.

Democratic Gov. William Donald Schaefer later appointed Mr. Neall to run an important task force on drug abuse.

He was impatient with those who said he gave aid and comfort to Democrats. He was a good fit among those who, occasionally, relished a fight with entrenched interest groups. That, too, could be part of the old boys' macho ethic.

Their most trying hour came in 1984.

Mr. Cardin, Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Neall saw a major threat to the state's fiscal future, a pension system they said was out of control. It had a mushrooming unfunded obligation to retired state workers and teachers.

Legislation designed to get it under control sent Mr. Cardin and Mr. Mitchell up against some of their party's strongest building blocks: increasingly political teachers and state employees who said the state was breaking a contract with them.

The legislative leaders said it was a matter of breaking the contract or the bank. The sacred bond rating was in jeopardy.

Owing nothing to the Democratic constituencies who would be hurt by this bill, Mr. Neall was a resource. His own political security seemed less at stake.

His side barely won.

And then he became a poster child for the perils of doing what you think is right in government.

When he left the assembly to run for Congress, he was given a framed picture of a favorite Annapolis bar, Fran O'Brien's, on fire. The photograph was signed, ostensibly, by one of the teachers' lobbyists.

It said: "Dear Bobby. Wish you were there."

The legislators roared. But the scars were deep. The angry opposition of teachers was surely a significant factor when Mr. Neall lost his race for Congress by less than a thousand votes.

He would have faced this group again had he run for governor.

And he would have faced opposition in Montgomery County, perhaps, because he was credited with a budget-balancing idea that resulted in the state's decision to stop paying Social Security taxes for Montgomery's teachers.

He had been the protege of former Rep. Marjorie S. Holt, as

strong a Republican as you can find in Maryland or anywhere else.

But his friendship with Democrats did not always endear him to )) his colleagues in the state's minority party, some of whom regarded him as a sellout.

The party's more doctrinaire practitioners would like to win without someone who played ball with Democrats.

Now they have their chance.

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