In one week, Anne Arundel County's 13-member Republican Central Committee will elect a successor to Sen. John Cade -- and restore the public career of a man who might some day run for governor.
Former County Executive Robert R. Neall is the committee's likely choice, an ideal senator with gubernatorial potential in the minds of some business leaders and some Democrats.
His return to public life after two years as a lobbyist could alter the political landscape simply by adding another unknown: Will he or won't he run for the GOP's gubernatorial nomination in 1998?
Republicans are already wondering if Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker will run.
Their backers will urge them on, hoping to undo the inevitability of a second chance at the governor's mansion for Ellen R. Sauerbrey, the GOP's 1994 nominee who nearly won and wants another shot. Many believe no one in the GOP can deny her that opportunity.
But a candidacy by Ecker or Neall -- both more moderate than Sauerbrey -- is seen by some in the party as the only way for Republicans to prevail in a state that is almost 2-to-1 Democratic in voter registration.
Like Cade, who died Nov. 14, Neall is known as a master of government budgets, a careful minder of public money and a creative problem-solver who cut spending when he had to but searched for ways to do it equitably.
Those who fret about his aspirations are borrowing trouble, Neall says.
The 48-year-old former banker, three-term legislator and Johns Hopkins Hospital executive says he is focused entirely on
finishing Cade's term honorably and well.
"I haven't thought of running for governor in two and a half years," he said. "I'm not thinking about it. I could pass a polygraph on that. I have $25,000 in my political bank account which is nice for a Senate race, but not what I'd call a war chest for statewide office."
At the same time, he says, a race for governor could well be in his future. Preserving his options and offering a reminder of his trademark mischievousness, Neall says, "Sudden death and disability notwithstanding, I'm a fairly young guy."
For his supporters in the GOP, he represents an opportunity to retain Cade's position of eminence in the Senate. Neall's resume seems quintessentially Republican: He is a lobbyist for the Maryland Chamber of Commerce and a financial consultant for various businesses. He is also a relative rarity in the GOP, a Republican with depth of governmental experience. All of that appeared to be shelved for good two years ago.
"Before Jack's death, any conversation along these lines would have been unthinkable," Neall said last week as he prepared to "re-structure" his lobbying business to meet the restrictions imposed on legislators. He may also return to a job at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, but no final decision has been made.
His re-ascendancy even to the Senate seat is irksome to those Republicans who think Cade's replacement should be more conservative. Like Cade before him, he has been thought of as "a collaborator" who failed to assert his party's interests for fear of offending his pals in the Democratic power structure.
When he announced he would seek Cade's seat, a group of Anne Arundel County Republicans rose in opposition, calling him too liberal.
"Ludicrous," says Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary, one of Neall's friends and Republican colleagues. "Bob Neall and I and Jack Cade built this county's Republican Party from the days when it was 5-to-1 Democratic. Now it's closer to even."
Gary says the central committee will approach its task with great care, but he thinks the outcome is not in doubt. "They're bright people," he said. "When they look at Neall's credentials, this is a no-brainer for them."
Neall concedes his posture in the General Assembly was often an accommodating one. With only 16 Republican votes facing 125 Democrats, the party was a little like "a lawyer with a weak case."
"You might want to settle out of court," he said. "The question is where do you decide? Is it an issue so important it was worth being carried out on your shield, or was there an opportunity to get the result a little more your way?"
Gary still aligns himself with the Neall approach.
"When Ellen was the minority leader," he said, "I spent most of my time trying to keep her from going over the deep end."
No fan of Neall's style -- but anxious to avoid unbridgeable rifts -- Sauerbrey has seemed determined to maintain party harmony.
"Appointing a replacement for Jack Cade is the job of the Anne Arundel County Central Committee," she said. "They have to pick the person they feel is best suited to represent the views of their county."
The 1990s represent a new day for Republicans in Maryland, a time when fine-tuning is not enough for many, and a time when making stands to show differences in basic philosophy is less suicidal.
Neall thinks he is ready for that, too.
"I have some experience governing as county executive," he said. "It requires a different set of skills than just waiting for someone else to propose, criticizing it and laying waste to it. You can't play football with just a defense. You have to score."
Offense or defense, Neall has been found often at the center of grinding political and governmental controversy.
When he left the Assembly 10 years ago, he got the usual proclamations, standing ovations and gifts, including a framed photograph of his favorite bar engulfed in flames.
Across the bottom of the picture a jokester had written, "Dear Bobby: Wish you were there," and signed the name of a teachers union lobbyist who was furious with Neall for helping to trim teacher pensions.
Neall kept the gift as an emblem of his tough fiscal conservatism. He had been willing to take difficult positions even if he risked defeat at the polls. He knew his sometimes confrontational conservatism would not please unions and other special interests.
He finds the "too-liberal" charge curious, indeed.
"I've been a lobbyist for the Chamber of Commerce and what am I lobbying for: an income tax cut, deregulation and smaller government -- not exactly leftist causes."
When the state was forced to consider deep cuts in local aid three years ago, then-County Executive Neall suggested it might be time to make education subject to the knife as well.
"We needed to spread the misery," he said. "In some counties, the education budget was 75 percent of the total, so if you imposed cuts without including education, some counties would have been dismantling police forces."
With education spending subject to the economizing, counties were able to sustain the cuts and keep operating.
Neall is regarded as a "lock" for Cade's seat on the highly influential tax writing and budget making committee in the Senate. This is so not only because Neall has the fiscal background that committee demands, but because his party is moving into a position of power with demands that must be considered.
Neall said he thinks his legislative style is perfect for a time when voters seem to want less gridlock -- and even House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the nation's leading Republican, is calling for more cooperation with Democrats.
"Harsh words and strong feelings are always part of the debate, but you have to think about the end product," Neall said.
And what about Sauerbrey? Is she beatable in 1998?
"It's hard to say," Neall said. "I haven't given it a lot of thought. She's had the stage to herself for the last two years. [Former congresswoman and GOP primary candidate] Helen Bentley went her way, and I went mine."
Now, of course, he seems to be back.
Pub Date: 12/02/96