Harold E. Long, known affectionately as "Flea" by his Baltimore County Democratic Party patrons, retires today after 15 years of working for three county executives -- but not from politics.
A professional right-hand man straight from the pages of "The Last Hurrah," the 1950s novel about big-city politics, Mr. Long, 64, revels in the image he has created for himself -- that of an inconspicuous, slightly mysterious player close to power.
If he had to work for a Republican to do it, including the current executive, no problem.
Mr. Long is tall, with a quick, distinctive walk, nervous, flitting eyes, a soothing voice, a pot belly and a bad heart. He began his political career 25 years ago working for Norwood E. "Notes" Dietrich, a Loch Raven-area delegate known for the notes he always kept in his pockets.
He has been working for county executives since 1978 -- two Democrats and one Republican. Now, he is trying to help a candidate get elected to Congress.
"I don't feel comfortable asking for help directly," he said. "I'm a lot better off to work for somebody in a campaign. It's not in me to be the elected official." Mr. Long got his "Flea" nickname from Donald P. Hutchinson, then county executive, who gave him a staff job in 1978 after Mr. Long delivered his home Hillendale precinct and a few other key Towson area precincts and helped Mr. Hutchinson defeat six other Democrats.
Mr. Long said the nickname represented the speed with which he completed assigned tasks. Mr. Hutchinson, now director of the Greater Baltimore Committee, remembered it a bit differently.
"He was always annoying," Mr. Hutchinson said, laughing. Mr. Long's help was important in his 1978 campaign, he added, and "he was a wonderful guy to have around."
Mr. Hutchinson recalled practical jokes and teasing aimed at Mr. Long, things that lightened the tension and helped make the Hutchinson staff into a team.
A favorite memory involved the time Mr. Long complained that he was being underused and ignored and suggested that maybe he should quit.
"I asked him to go do something," Mr. Hutchinson said. While Mr. Long was gone, Mr. Hutchinson and the staff emptied his office down to the pictures on the walls, then waited for him to come back. "They were all standing in Donald's office laughing," Mr. Long said.
Then there was the day Mr. Long's persistence irritated Mr. Hutchinson to the point that the county executive cut off Mr. Long's necktie with scissors and stuffed it into his aide's bottle of Pepsi. Money for a new tie was on his desk by day's end, Mr. Long said.
After eight years on Mr. Hutchinson's staff, Mr. Long performed the same chores for Dennis F. Rasmussen, a friend and Essex ally of Mr. Hutchinson who succeeded him as executive in 1986. When Mr. Rasmussen left office after losing a re-election bid to Republican Roger B. Hayden in 1990, Mr. Long stayed.
With his retirement from the county, he now hops (flea-like) nTC across Towson's Pennsylvania Avenue to his new office, where he will preside as chairman of Democratic Del. Gerry L. Brewster's campaign to represent the 2nd District in Congress.
A chance to help launch yet another young, ambitious politician on a new career phase makes Mr. Long's eyes twinkle in anticipation.
Mr. Brewster has strong Democratic opponents in fellow Del. Connie Galiazzo DeJuliis and former Del. Barbara O. Kreamer. Del. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and banker William J. Frank have filed as Republicans.
If nothing else, Mr. Long is a survivor, and some in the Republican-run county government still wonder how he does it.
Republican Councilman Douglas B. Riley, for one, has had trouble accepting the idea of Mr. Hayden's allowing a staff aide to work for a Democratic congressional candidate while Republican candidates are seeking the same office. Mr. Long has been working for months on his own time for Mr. Brewster.
Others wonder how much actual county work Mr. Long has been doing, vs. the political chores he finds more attractive. He insists that his share of constituent complaints didn't get short shrift, and Mr. Hayden backs him up.
He has survived those doubts, not to mention a heart attack in 1985, the excitement of the 1988 Democratic National Convention -- his first -- just months before open heart surgery and Mr. Hayden's upset victory over Mr. Rasmussen in 1990.
He has done it by making himself useful, he said.
His contacts include cemetery owners, trash haulers and slot machine vendors. That usefulness comes in raising money, in helping Mr. Hayden maintain good relations with Mr. Long's Democratic friends in the mainly Democratic county and in practicing the old political dictum "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine."
Testimonial support of a few of those Democratic friends saved his county job and pension after other Rasmussen staffers went down in flames with their boss in 1990, he said.
"I was very favorably impressed by Harold," Mr. Hayden said. "If there's something I want done, I can just give it to Harold and forget about it. It happens."
Mr. Long ran for public office once, in 1974 for House of Delegates. He lost and took the rejection so personally that he vowed never to expose himself directly again.
"I didn't come out of the house for three weeks, until finally my boss at Lucas Brothers called and said, 'If you don't get down here tomorrow, you might not have a job.' "
But in 1978 his wife, Louise, met Mr. Hutchinson while working at the United Way and suggested that her husband get back into politics in the executive campaign.
He did, helping launch the Essex state senator to two full terms as county executive. He still is the only executive to serve two full terms.
"He was good for me in '78," Mr. Hutchinson said.