Outwardly, Vincent J. Gardina appears a shy and reticent public official.
No backslapper in the tradition of a smoky Maryland bull roast, the Baltimore County councilman hardly makes a ripple when he enters a community hall for a night meeting or attends a public event.
But on the county's Eastside, he is a crucial figure in the plan to reshape Essex, Middle River and other aging communities overrun with unemployment, dilapidated apartments and crime.
Mr. Gardina's resolution in 1994 sparked the revitalization drive and, according to County Council custom, he will have veto power over rezonings that the plan calls for in his district. And already, the Perry Hall Democrat is butting heads with an Essex landowner over a prized piece of the plan.
"Vince is a naturally shy person, but he gets out there a lot. He cares about the neediest," says Mary Emerick, the eastern coordinator for the county Office of Community Conservation.
Area residents -- many of whom cling to such values as a strong work ethic and patriotism, and community pride -- view with renewed hope the county's ambitious revitalization plan, unveiled last week by County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III. It calls for adding parkland, razing rundown apartments and bringing new jobs to the area.
And in places like Bowleys Quarters and Wilson Point, the councilman is a connection to the government in Towson. To many, Mr. Gardina, 40, is a blue-collar homeboy with a passion for the environment and a commitment to the neighborhoods.
"I have tremendous respect for him," says Alfred E. Clasing Jr., a community leader on the Back River Neck peninsula. "I don't always agree with him, but he cares about us."
Susan Widerman, president of the Walnut Grove Neighborhood Association, adds, "Vince is wonderful. He's not afraid to go against the developers or people with lots of money or influence. We feel he's fighting for the little guy."
The son of a county court clerk and a telephone operator, Mr. Gardina grew up in Northeast Baltimore, where he played on St. Elizabeth's 1972 national championship soccer team. He earned degrees at the University of Baltimore and the University of Maryland Baltimore County -- in geography and environmental science, and in computer science.
His varied background includes a job in a chemistry lab, seven years as a county police officer and a two-year term as chairman of the Sierra Club of Greater Baltimore. Now, he is a computer programmer for First National Bank.
A 5th District councilman since 1990, he lives with his wife and daughter, 5, in Perry Hall.
"I'm a sentimentalist," he says. "I really respect old people. They carried the loads through the wars, and they humped steel and built cars. They have their mortgages paid off. Now, they are afraid in their own homes."
In June 1994, he introduced a resolution -- with the full legislative muscle of the council behind it -- urging the Planning Board to prepare a revitalization plan for the eastern county. Then-County Executive Roger B. Hayden also endorsed the plan.
The effort took aim at an area that has seen 20,000 blue-collar jobs vanish. Most communities are model neighborhoods with active community organizations. But some pockets are crime-ridden, and some schools report a 60 percent mobility rate for students, indicating an unstable population. And with 14 residents per acre, the Eastside has the highest population density in the county.
The Planning Board undertook the charge, the county Office of Community Conservation was created to revive older neighborhoods, and when Mr. Ruppersberger took office in December 1994, he saw the Eastside plan as critical to the entire county.
On the County Council, Mr. Gardina has tremendous power over the plan's fate. He can get zoning changed, he can slash programs he thinks are cosmetic, he can kill the entire package. And as a political courtesy, the other six council members will back him.
Now, as Mr. Ruppersberger pushes for a mini-Harborplace on Dark Head Cove near Martin State Airport, Mr. Gardina has been meeting with a group of local developers about a smaller complex of a restaurant, shops and piers at Hopkins Landing on the Middle River and Hopkins Creek.
"I would like to see some upscale single-family housing and some condominiums behind that," Mr. Gardina said. "The density is one of my chief concerns, so this will be done very carefully."
The major portion of the 160 acres is owned by NationsBank, which already has it zoned for residential development. The prime riverfront section on Middle River, more than a mile long, is owned by Daniel W. Hubers, an appraiser with the county register of wills officeand president of Back and Middle River Savings and Loan.
"That land has been in my family since 1906," Mr. Hubers said. "I would like to build a housing project for senior citizens there, that would benefit the community. But I have talked with Vince, and I'm not sure where he's going with this, but it sounds like he's playing hardball. He indicated to me he will take zoning away if he doesn't get what he wants."
While providing economic development in the plan, Mr. Gardina wants to remain sensitive to residents' concerns.
"The people in my district are skeptical because they have been paid lip service for so long," he said. "But I have a real sense of optimism among the people.
"As has been observed, this won't happen overnight, but they believe Dutch, they believe me. It's a case of the executive and legislative branches working together, however rare that may seem."
When the winter weather breaks, the first visible signs of the plan -- improving the infrastructure -- will appear as crews repair crumbled alleys, he said.
"Solutions are not around the corner, but the energy is there, and most of the community is beginning to believe in it."