Bobby Neall's Legacy


If Anne Arundel County Executive Bobby Neall thinks it is best for him and his family that he not run for governor or anything else, it is impossible not to congratulate him for making the right decision and wish him well. But watching him walk away from politics is a little like watching Michael Jordan leave basketball -- you can't help but feel some regret at seeing someone at the peak of his abilities call it quits.

Mr. Neall has served in the House of Delegates for 12 years and as county executive for three. His legacy is that he helped rescue state and county government from financial ruin, first by engineering reform of the state pension system, and then by restructuring local government.

Both efforts earned him lasting enemies, most notably teachers and unions. Sometimes, he seemed to relish fighting them almost too much. In general, however, his determination to "do the right thing" as he saw it, regardless of political consequences, was a refreshing change from the usual pandering and scurrying from tough decisions.

In a way, Mr. Neall's public history is a contradiction. On the one hand, he is the consummate insider, a darling of the establishment. On the other, he is an anti-politician -- as unflashy as the "plain vanilla" government he preaches, more fond of working through complex budget problems than kissing babies, devoted to the unpopular cause.

During the last three years, Mr. Neall has been kinder to warm, fuzzy social programs than most people realize; he always discourages his handlers from making a big deal of it. He doesn't like playing Santa. Most politicians' egos crave this sort of thing. His is different.

It thrives on being hailed as the one who does what no one else is willing to do, like build a jail or, more recently, give up his own pension. The latter was chalked up to political expediency by many people, who saw Mr. Neall distancing himself from a growing controversy as he prepared to run for higher office. That was the obvious explanation, but not the real one. Much more than money, he values his legacy as a fiscal guardian. Sacrificing the pension is the kind of thing he would do.

Anne Arundel County was lucky to elect someone with Mr. Neall's fiscal talents on the eve of a recession. The times suit him. At a state level, his lack of blind partisanship and ability to work with Democrats renders him valuable in any era. But it's not to be. That may be the best thing for Bobby Neall. It's not for Maryland politics.

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