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Council leader Evans enjoying life in the majority

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For the past four years, her hard, partisan edge has generated tension and division on what had historically been an all-Democratic County Council.

Now, Diane R. Evans is in the majority and having fun.

What's more, the Arnold resident is leading an extraordinarily bipartisan, inexperienced council that stood up to Republican County Executive John G. Gary during deliberations last month on his $950 million spending plan.

The seven-member council publicly criticized Mr. Gary for hiring several campaign supporters as aides and defeated several pet projects, including a career training center for wayward teens.

"It seems to me she's changed a great deal," said Michael Gilligan, brother-in-law of one her early adversaries. "It's a tremendous change to go from being the strident, [humorless] Republican to a consensus builder."

Her new persona has supporters of Mr. Gary worried that she could be positioning herself to unseat their man in 1998 and become Anne Arundel's first female executive.

"She's certainly not making any attempt to put a better face on any of Gary's blunders," said Dan Nataf, a Democrat from Severna Park who is a political science professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. "She knows what she is saying, and she knows what she is doing."

Mrs. Evans, 46, a full-time lawmaker, said last week that she has heard the talk but has not decided whether to seek the executive's post or a state Senate seat, or simply to walk away from elective office. Term limits approved by voters in 1992 bar her from seeking a third consecutive term on the council.

"Everything is on the table," she said.

For some -- particularly registered Democrats -- the turnaround seems remarkable.

For others, including many who have known her since she moved to Anne Arundel from North Carolina in the early 1970s, it is simply Diane being Diane. She hasn't changed; the council has.

Mr. Gilligan said he loathed Mrs. Evans after she first captured her seat five years ago. Mrs. Evans defeated his sister-in-law, Linda Gilligan, with "hard-nosed" tactics that drew sharp contrasts -- sharper, perhaps, than was justified -- between the two.

Mrs. Gilligan, a Severna Park resident, declined recently to talk about the race. Her brother-in-law said the election "left a real bad taste in her mouth."

"At that time, Diane was evil," said Mr. Gilligan, himself a former councilman from Glen Burnie. "Now, she's mellowed, she's actually working with Democrats, and her whole style has changed."

Not that the transformation occurred overnight. Mrs. Evans' election in 1990 ended a Democratic monopoly on the seven council seats that had spanned two decades.

For the next four years, she took no prisoners, battling for relevance on a panel then still controlled by Democrats. She challenged the majority's wisdom and conventions. And she emerged as the leading advocate for plans by Robert R. Neall, then the county executive, to reduce the size of government.

"She was always battling the majority," said Councilman George F. Bachman, a Linthicum Democrat. "She was like Don Quixote, always putting her finger in the dikes and [charging at] the windmills."

Last fall, during her re-election campaign, Mrs. Evans wore like a badge of honor her reputation as the council member most likely to dissent. "I've upset a lot of people . . . [but] at least the issues were discussed more in depth," she said in October.

Victories by Mrs. Evans and three other Republicans in November gave the GOP its first majority on the seven-member council. As the senior Republican, her role changed from loyal opposition to majority leader.

She responded by urging her GOP colleagues to tap Mr. Bachman, the only other veteran, as vice chairman, even though he is a Democrat. The key, she said, is his lengthy experience as a lawmaker. Mr. Bachman has served on the council for 22 of the last 30 years.

"There isn't one council person out there who doesn't support her," Mr. Bachman said. "Why? Because she is fair to all of us."

Mr. Bachman and the five new members praise Mrs. Evans' vision for the council as "co-equal" with the bureaucracy led by Mr. Gary. And they credit her with providing them with the information and wisdom they needed last month to assert themselves aggressively as policy-makers.

She has started public work sessions to keep council members informed. She essentially fired longtime County Auditor Joe Novotny, with whom she had public disagreements, and reduced the role of the auditor, the council's fiscal adviser.

Despite the 4-3 split along party lines, the council has acted with a singular unanimity. Unlike the previous council, partisanship seems to have no place there.

"She does not want this council to be like the last [which] had a lot of personality and partisan problems," said Councilman William C. Mulford II, an Annapolis Republican. "I don't see the partisan infighting that you have at the congressional or state level, in Baltimore or even in Annapolis."

He and other lawmaker say this council, because its members share a conservative philosophy, would have achieved the same rapport no matter who was chairman.

But Mrs. Evans has "nurtured" the newcomers, helping them understand policy decisions "in a manner so they don't feel like it has been forced down their throats," said Councilman John J. Klocko III, a Crofton Republican.

Mrs. Evans, who frequently kids with her new colleagues, agrees that "party lines have blurred. . . . We certainly haven't voted along party lines."

But she disputes the notion that she is undergoing any extraordinary transformation.

"My philosophy hasn't changed, my direction hasn't changed, my purpose hasn't changed," she said.

Of her minor skirmishes with the Gary administration, she said, "I'm trying to be faithful to my convictions. If they do not square to certain personalities, then so be it."

Mr. Neall bristles at the notion that Mrs. Evans has changed. He has known her since 1974, when he was a state delegate and she was his legislative aide, and he fears that newspaper stories are drawing a political caricature of her.

She is a "textbook case," he said, of a young adult whose hard work -- through the GOP, the Jaycees and civic groups on the Broadneck Peninsula -- for her community has culminated in her emergence as one of the county's leading policy-makers. "The real story on Diane is how hard she has worked to improve her community," Mr. Neall said.

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