Why Gary Slept Well Tuesday Night


The happiest man about Ted Sophocleus' Democratic primary victory Tuesday night was Ted Sophocleus. The second happiest may have been his Republican opponent in the race for Anne Arundel County executive, John Gary.

That's not to say Mr. Gary would have wept in his plastic beer cup had Mr. Sophocleus' closest rival, Bob Agee, who served as aide to then-executive O. James Lighthizer, pulled an upset. Had Mr. Agee won, Mr. Gary would have tied him to the Lighthizer record, a handicap in the minds of many, according to the Republican nominee. But Ted Sophocleus -- that's who John Gary wanted from the beginning.

"Agee has never been elected before. He has no actual voting record to contrast against . . . And Agee and I agree on a lot of things," Mr. Gary said.

With Ted, there's disagreement galore. Stark differences in style, personality and ideology. John Gary's promise to continue County Executive Bobby Neall's legacy of lean, mean government versus Ted's contempt for it -- particularly the mean part.

There's eight years worth of Mr. Sophocleus' County Council votes to attack. A reputation for not being able to say "no" to anybody. Plus a link to the Lighthizer administration and one hefty piece of baggage in particular -- Mr. Sophocleus' 1989 vote on a pension bill that now nets him and his wife $900 a month.

In the primary, Mr. Agee held back from slamming Mr. Sophocleus in these vulnerable areas because he, too, was trying to distance himself from Mr. Lighthizer. Mr. Gary has no such qualms.

Was he glad when the ballot returns showed Mr. Sophocleus headed convincingly toward victory? You bet he was.

But this race isn't going to be a walk in the park for Mr. Gary. Mr. Sophocleus is a formidable candidate, and probably the favorite at this early stage thanks to name recognition. His narrow defeat at the hands of Mr. Neall four years ago has made him more familiar to voters than 12 years as a state delegate have done for Mr. Gary.

Mr. Sophocleus has some detailed position papers and solid business experience (though, interestingly, he never plays up those assets as much as his warm-and-fuzzy "people person" image). His brief stint as a delegate last winter earned him nothing but praise from experienced lawmakers.

Most important, perhaps, beneath his nice guy exterior lies a very determined politician. He lost the executive race once and has lived with a bitter taste in his mouth since. He does not want to lose again.

On the morning after the primary, Mr. Sophocleus was still too overwhelmed to talk about how he will run against Mr. Gary. But Mr. Gary thinks he knows what's coming.

Mr. Gary is socially conservative. He has sponsored legislation supporting home schooling and the rights of parents to review sex education curriculums. His recent "protect our borders" campaign, which warned against an infiltration of crime from neighboring Prince George's County and Baltimore, was widely perceived as narrow-minded fear-mongering.

He fully expects the Democrats to use these facts to portray him as a tool of the Christian right.

"What makes me laugh about this is that I never in the world thought of myself as being a religious right person," he said. "My pastor would laugh. I don't even go to church on a regular basis."

He sponsored the education legislation that is responsible for his extremist image not for religious reasons, he says, but because he believes in a parent's right to know what his children are being taught.

"I'm not going to go out and apologize because I go to church, and I'm certainly not going to apologize because I have strong moral values. But to imply that I try to insert moral values into legislation" -- or, he says, that as executive he would try to force them on the citizenry -- "is not a fair criticism."

Even some leading Democrats concede Mr. Gary probably is not as far to the right as he is perceived. They also acknowledge that a county executive's social and religious philosophies are almost irrelevant, because his power to impose them are next to nil.

Hot-button issues such as abortion and gun-control are decided at the state level. The creation of a radically liberal social agenda or ultra-conservative attempts to gut basic programs would have to get past the County Council.

And school policy -- where most conservative extremists try to exert influence -- is off limits to the county executive under the current school board nominating convention selection process.

Granted, Mr. Gary has said he wants authority to appoint board members, which raises the question of whether he intends to create a conservative school board. He's prepared for this, too. His proposal is for appointment power subject to council confirmation, to protect against executives stacking the board with extremists or cronies.

John Gary is nobody's fool. Thanks to a lack of primary opposition, he has had plenty of time to plan how to deflect the arrows he knows are headed his way, and he seems to have used it wisely. Now that Mr. Sophocleus has won the Democratic nomination, he has the race he wants. Mr. Gary wasn't overcome by euphoria Tuesday night, not the way his opponent was. But he was celebrating all the same.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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