Executive hopefuls tout contrasting experience


On Nov. 8, Anne Arundel voters will decide the winner of the county executive race in a classic showdown between the power and glamour of a state lawmaker and the common, workaday record of a county councilman.

History favors the State House. In the 30 years since the county adopted home rule, voters always have chosen Anne Arundel's top executive from the General Assembly, bypassing council members more intimate with the details of local government.

Although this year's county executive candidates -- Democrat Theodore J. Sophocleus and Republican John G. Gary -- are both state delegates, the Democrat is better known for the eight years he represented Linthicum on the council. Mr. Sophocleus, 55, was appointed to fill a vacancy in the House of Delegates last year.

Mr. Gary, 50, has served 12 years in the legislature, including eight on the Appropriations Committee, which has a direct hand in determining the state's spending priorities.

Each candidate tries to sell his experience as the best for the job. Mr. Sophocleus touts his knowledge of county services, and Mr. Gary stresses the lessons he learned working with government finances.

County services, which range from public education to trash disposal and police protection, often affect residents more immediately and directly than those provided by the state, Mr. Sophocleus said. As a result, he said, county government requires a different management style and set of skills.

"John's going to have to get on a learning curve," Mr. Sophocleus said. "I can start working out of the 'in' basket immediately."

Mr. Gary disagrees. "Twelve years in the legislature is like earning a Ph.D. in government, for God's sake," he said.

Who are these two men who want the highest prize in county politics?

The son of Greek immigrants, Ted Sophocleus grew up in Baltimore, graduated from the University of Maryland, became a pharmacist and moved to Linthicum. There, he volunteered to coach youth league football -- a decision that laid the groundwork for his political career.

Mr. Gary, the son of a Navy chief warrant officer, grew up in Pasadena, graduated from Glen Burnie High School and, after a brief flirtation with college, joined a Baltimore interior design firm as a management trainee -- a job that whetted his appetite for politics.

"A lot of the movers and shakers in the state I met through the drapery business," said Mr. Gary, who supervised 20 employees in the drapery workshop at the H. Chambers Co.

On a job, installing new drapes at the Governor's Mansion in Annapolis, Mr. Gary met Spiro T. Agnew, then governor and later vice president.

"I got to the point where I was having breakfast twice a week with the governor," said Mr. Gary. When Richard M. Nixon picked the governor as his running mate, "I was in hog heaven. Here I was a young man, and I knew the man who was going to be vice president.

"Of course, I was crushed when he fell. That rattled me. I didn't know if I wanted to continue in politics after that."

Mr. Gary, who initially settled in Havenwood, got his first taste of local politics lobbying the county to pave roads and install street lights in the neighborhood. He campaigned for Jack Steffi for state Senate in 1966 and Charles McC. Mathias for the U.S. Senate in 1968.

By 1970, Mr. Gary had developed a reputation as a skilled political organizer who could bring young people and Democrats to GOP campaigns, recalled Walter Sexton, who managed state Sen. John A. Cade's campaign for county executive that year. It was a highly valued talent in a county where the Democrats outnumbered the Republicans 4-to-1.

All three Republican candidates in 1970 -- including incumbent Joseph Alton and Senator Steffi -- wooed Mr. Gary, then 27, for his support, Mr. Sexton said. The young man eventually joined Mr. Cade's losing effort, forging a political alliance that would help carry him into public office 12 years later.

After Mr. Gray lost a run for the County Council in 1978 (then a countywide seat), Mr. Cade put him on the county liquor board. That same year he also became president of WATCH, a parental group concerned about the moral values taught in public schools. That forged another alliance that would help define his legislative career.

Dennis Younger, director of curriculum for the county schools, said WATCH challenged a ninth-grade civics textbook called "Street Law" because it opened with a "classic case about a group of survivors in life raft who resorted to cannibalism." The challenge was turned back.

Mr. Gary, who was elected to the House in 1982, eventually distanced himself from the group. Still, "that electorate certainly looked to him as their spokesman in the legislature," Mr. Younger said.

During his 12 years in office, Mr. Gary has focused as much on education as on fiscal matters. He pushed the state Board of Education into easing restrictions on home schooling and, in 1988, unsuccessfully sought to give the county executive control over the county Board of Education.

Another Gary effort to require schools to obtain written parental consent before teaching any health and sex education in elementary and middle schools, including prevention of acquired immune deficiency syndrome, also failed. He also has tried to repeal the new community service requirement for high school graduates.

Outside politics, Mr. Gary's career has taken several turns. He left H. Chambers in 1973 to run his own custom drapery shop in Millersville and, in 1985, launched an abbreviated career as a general building contractor. He closed the construction company 1992 with about $250,000 in debts, which he said he hopes to pay off this fall.

During the same period that Mr. Gary rose from campaign organizer to state delegate, Mr. Sophocleus climbed the corporate ladder with the 104-outlet Read's drugstore chain.

Having managed progressively larger drugstores in Annapolis, Baltimore, Ellicott City, Mr. Sophocleus was called in 1974 to corporate headquarters to implement a consultant's efficiency study. Two years later, he took over as director of training and professional services.

"Ted wasn't the smartest guy, but . . . Ted was a leader, a born leader," recalled Murray Spear, a Baltimore County resident and former Read's supervisor. "He dealt with people well and was very forceful. He was a great politician. I wish I had his knack."

Mr. Sophocleus left Maryland for Texas in 1977, after a small pharmacy chain in Corpus Christi hired him as its president. He returned to Linthicum three years later and bought his own pharmacy on Hammonds Ferry Road.

Having built a broad base of political support through coaching and other community activities, Mr. Sophocleus swept onto the County Council in 1982. During his tenure there, he distinguished himself for his interest in senior citizens and in parks and recreation.

He also had a penchant for scolding school officials and department heads who proposed new projects or spent more money than budgeted.

He helped organize a committee composed of Baltimore-Washington International Airport officials and neighbors who had complaints about noise. And he has been a vocal critic of the incinerators and other smokestack industries in South Baltimore along the Anne Arundel border.

Mr. Sophocleus won his party's nomination for county executive in 1990 and nearly came from behind to upset a better-known candidate, Robert R. Neall, a former state delegate and House minority leader.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer appointed Mr. Sophocleus to the House of Delegates in 1993 to fill a seat left vacant by Tyras S. "Bunk" Athey, who became Maryland's secretary of state.

Whether Mr. Sophocleus, perhaps with the help of his one-year brush with the State House, can break a local political jinx and win the executive's job will be determined by voter turnout on Nov. 8, said state Sen. Michael J. Wagner, a Democrat who predicted a split along party lines.

"John has a reputation of being more of a conservative, more of a pure Republican," Mr. Wagner said, comparing him to former Republican executives. "He's been more of an Elephant Club boy.

"Ted's got more of a reputation as a consensus builder."

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