Somewhere up on the fourth floor of the Arundel Center, Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary must be shaking his head at the irony of his predicament.
All during the 1994 campaign, he fought to rid himself of the ultra-conservative label that had stuck for years, finally selling himself as a budget expert who would guard county coffers like a Doberman.
Now, all of a sudden, he's being made to look like a Lighthizeresque liberal. What's going on here? How does an executive whose first budget includes the second smallest spending increase in 30 years find himself being compared to the man who became the symbol of 1980s-style big government in Anne Arundel?
Answer: He runs into seven County Council members visibly less than awed by his authority and so tight they probably need to oil their joints before climbing onto the dais.
How fiscally conservative are these people?
So conservative they anguished over whether to spend a paltry $700 to keep a newsletter about Jug Bay. (The newsletter survived. It was the only county newsletter that did.)
So conservative they considered a drastic reduction in toilet paper for government buildings.
So conservative the Gary administration says they approved a budget that doesn't balance because they spent too little.
Linthicum Democrat George F. Bachman, a councilman for all but eight of the last 30 years, says he's never seen anything like it. And, incidentally, he likes what he sees:
Seven people on a mission to fulfill the voters' mandate for no-frills government. Who, despite party differences, are getting along like peas in a pod. Who want to do more -- a lot more -- than tend pothole problems in their own districts and sign off merrily on everything the executive wants to do. They want to set policy and reform government.
"We are council," they're saying. "Hear us roar."
Mr. Bachman doesn't expect ever to see a County Council as cohesive and influential as Anne Arundel's first legislative panel, which passed the laws that became the foundation of county government. He served with that group, too. But if things keep up the way they are, he says, this one could come close.
"This council can make hard decisions," he says. "They're fair . . . they don't waffle.
"They're inquisitive. They scrutinize everything. They take nothing for granted."
In other words, just because the county executive says he needs $15,000 for copy paper because that's how much he used last year doesn't mean council members won't tell him to do with less.
"This council really has shown its independence from the county administration," Mr. Bachman says.
That is very different from the way it was during O. James Lighthizer's administration (1982-1990, the years Mr. Bachman was out of office). Mr. Lighthizer was a Democrat, and so were all the council members. He worked with the council to get the votes he wanted on policy matters, and the council worked with him to get projects their districts wanted.
During the Robert R. Neall administration (1990-1994), the council never became effective because its members couldn't get along.
The three Democratic holdovers from the Lighthizer days never really got used to the fact that economic times had changed. Meanwhile, the two Republicans, especially Diane R. Evans, assumed the role of minority antagonists. Allegiances shifted constantly, and, when certain council members got mad at certain other council members, "they'd gang up on [them] and cut projects out of their district," Mr. Bachman recalls.
This new council is different.
"Right now," Mr. Bachman says, "we have a coalition of seven of us."
Five of the council members are newcomers free of political ties, swept in on the less government/lower taxes tide that dominated elections last fall. Two of those, William C. Mulford II and John J. Klocko III, are seriously conservative Republicans. "The Newt Boys," Mr. Bachman calls them. "They want to cut everything.
Republican Bert L. Rice is a retired military man.
Two of the Democrats, James E. "Ed" DeGrange and Thomas Redmond, are businessmen.
Mr. Bachman votes like a Democrat on labor issues, but votes conservatively now because that's what his constituents expect.
Then there's Mrs. Evans. During the last four years she was the voice of dissent, the thorn in the Democrats' side, Bobby Neall's worshipful little follower. The role didn't suit her. People thought her intelligent but rigid, icy and combative.
Now she's chairman of a council that's ready and willing to follow her. She not the partisan antagonist any more. She's a leader, and a shrewd one. Note that she asked Mr. Bachman, not a fellow Republican, to serve as vice-chair -- a tribute to his experience that sent a message from the start that this council wasn't going to split along party lines.
She's more comfortable now that she's not the alien resident. She smiles more. But Mrs. Evans means business. She believes it's the council's job as well as the executive's to create a government that provides basic services at the lowest possible cost, and for the first time she's got six colleagues who feel the same way.
It's a powerful little force she's mustered, as John Gary is learning quickly enough.
Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.