Hopkins: folksy or fumbling? Critics fault Annapolis mayor; he cites record


He speaks often in fractured syntax, likes to wax nostalgic about the streetcar days and is known to say publicly that if one drops an 'o' from 'good' one gets 'God.' It is easy to forget that the election Annapolis Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins won four years ago was cast chiefly as a matter of style.

Imagine, a contest of style, and the winner was Al Hopkins, practitioner of Unstyle. Al Hopkins of the homilies and patriotic sayings, who says he reads the Bible twice daily, and "the most important thing in my life is to please God." The humble man who apparently would not know irony if it drove into his office in a Volvo. Who probably would never own a Volvo.

Hopkins fans say that "he's not flashy." They're talking about a man who displays a copy of "The Little Engine That Could" in his office at City Hall, who once pulled a reporter aside on a downtown street to show her where, as a boy, he buried his pet canary.

Months after National Geographic dubbed Annapolis "Camelot on the Bay," Alderman Hopkins, the retired newspaper sports editor who coached youngsters on local ball fields, went hat-in-hand looking for votes on the streets of the city where he had always lived. If the election result was any measure, the heart of the chic sailing capital is less Camelot than Mayberry, R.F.D.

Now, four years later, the cast of characters in the mayoral election has not changed. Once again it's Democrat Hopkins vs. two younger men: Republican Laurence Vincent, 47, and former Mayor Dennis M. Callahan, 52, running as an independent. In 1989, Mr. Hopkins defeated then-Mayor Callahan by 182 votes in the Democratic primary and Mr. Vincent in the general election.

Mr. Callahan was portrayed then as his own worst enemy. No one questioned his intellect, his competence or his energy in City Hall. But his confrontational style, his tendency to polarize and insult people were said to have contributed to his defeat. Voters were ready for someone different, someone likable, someone who was not Dennis Callahan.

Someone like Alfred Archibald Hopkins, a 68-year-old, white-haired man with a distinguished bearing who never claimed to be a fine speaker, who nobody even claims is especially smart. Mr. Hopkins, who likes to talk about his working-class upbringing, says he loves Annapolis and has held no greater ambition in life than to serve as the city's mayor.

The contrast this year with his two more articulate opponents is as striking as ever. This time, however, it's Mayor Hopkins with a record to promote and defend.

His opponents say the mayor's record of rhetorical gaffes, political blunders and failure to set clear goals for the city show he's unfit for the job.

Unfortunate incidents

On a few occasions in the past four years, Mr. Hopkins' remarks and actions have left him digging out of fallout, and local politicos wondering what the mayor was thinking.

At a mayoral debate in Eastport last week, Mr. Hopkins opened with remarks about his religious devotion and told the crowd: "If you want to call me a hypocrite you can do it, but you'll be judged for doing it."

In his first year in office, Mr. Hopkins created a stir at a local synagogue when he defended his vote against an ordinance to deny liquor licenses to private clubs that discriminate on the basis of race, sex, nationality or religion. The mayor tried to make a point about freedom of association, but what came out was a statement that racial quotas were dangerous because they could lead to laws requiring interracial marriages. He later apologized for any misunderstanding.

And folks who live in the historic district downtown, where a good parking space is hard to find, will remember the time Mr. Hopkins surreptitiously took five downtown parking permits from the city clerk's office and gave them to Naval Academy midshipmen to pay a football wager. The Annapolis Ethics Commission found he violated the City Code. Mr. Hopkins apologized and recalled the permits.

Mr. Hopkins violated city ambulance procedure in the summer of 1991 when he went over a Fire Department battalion chief's head to order a city ambulance to take Hilda Mae Snoops, Gov. William Donald Schaefer's companion, on a nonemergency run to a Baltimore hospital. This caused a two-minute lag in local ambulance response, during which a local man died of a heart attack.

The mayor said he was told it was an emergency and wanted to help.

Mayor Hopkins says too much has been made of these episodes. He says his first term demonstrates there's more to him than an affable man from the neighborhood.

"The knock was 'Al's a nice guy, but . . .' " says Mr. Hopkins. The "but" was doubt that a man not known for bold or progressive action in 24 years as a city councilor was capable of running city government.

"If you look at what I've done for four years, that should put to rest that" doubt about his competence, says Mr. Hopkins. "And I did it. I made the decisions, not anybody else."

Defends record

Mr. Hopkins points to his administration's completion of a 540-space downtown parking garage and re-bricking State Circle, inauguration of a citywide curbside recycling program, success at winning grants from the county and state for a city bus subsidy and the garage and State Circle projects. He says he has stepped up the effort to lure business to the city by hiring an economic development officer.

The mayor says the city is in fine financial shape, with an $8 million surplus in a $38 million budget, bond ratings of A1 and A+ from Moody's and Standard & Poor's, and, amid a recession, no layoffs or furloughs among the city's employees.

Mr. Hopkins, who lost decisively to Mr. Callahan in the 1989 primary in the city's two predominantly black wards, notes that he has hired a number of black department heads and staff members and that under his administration the city has hired a black deputy chief of police. Under Mayor Hopkins, the city also has satisfied the demands of a 1984 court order to hire more minority police officers.

His foes tend to attribute his administration's successes to Michael Mallinoff, the 36-year-old city administrator whose $65,000 salary has become an issue in Mr. Callahan's campaign.

Under the city charter, the mayor is the city's chief executive officer, but Hopkins critics suggest that the city is being run by Mr. Mallinoff, a lawyer who served as legislative assistant to Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad, D-Annapolis, before Mr. Hopkins hired him.

Mr. Hopkins dismisses such talk. "I run the city," he says. "Mike does what I tell him to do."

But even some of the mayor's allies say that while Mr. Hopkins has brought more harmony to City Hall, he has been reluctant to assert leadership.

"All [City Council] committees are stronger because of this," says Alderman Samuel Gilmer, D-Ward 3. "He gives us almost a free hand . . . He has a certain amount of authority. He does not exercise it."

Alderman John R. Hammond, R-Ward 1, who is supporting Mr. Vincent, says the mayor "pretty much reacts to what's brought in front of him."

If Mr. Hopkins' passive manner leaves some people wondering who is in charge at City Hall, it apparently works to the city's advantage in dealings with the county and the state.

Anne Arundel County's liaison to the city, Gorham L. Black III, describes city-county relations under the Hopkins administration as a "love fest . . . Nobody's out trying to screw each other. That's unique."

Mr. Hopkins' longtime friend Ron Jarashow, an Annapolis lawyer, said Mr. Hopkins is a simple man, and that works: "Nobody

suspects Al Hopkins of having an ulterior motive."

The administration negotiated a $71,000 county subsidy for bus service and received millions in state aid for the parking garage and State Circle construction. Just how much of this is directly attributable to Mr. Hopkins' diplomacy is hard to say.

But just last Friday, Mr. Hopkins appeared at a news conference to announce that Governor Schaefer had blocked money to help pay for the expansion of the county jail on Jennifer Road, just outside the Annapolis city line.

It was a fortuitous pre-election display for Mr. Hopkins, one that will make it more difficult for his opponents to portray the mayor as inept.

"I just know this," says Mr. Hopkins, "when I leave as mayor I can look in the mirror and say 'You did a good job.' And that's my goal."

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