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Carroll commissioner 'wasn't surprised' by his loss Tuesday


About 10 minutes after the polls closed Tuesday night, Donald Dell hopped in his battered pickup truck and drove from school to school throughout Carroll County, picking up the signs promoting his campaign for a fourth term as county commissioner.

He saw no point in hanging around a Westminster catering hall where other Republicans had gathered to wait for election results. Before the first vote was counted, he knew he would not be moving on to the general election.

"I wasn't surprised. I would have been more surprised if I had won," he said Wednesday in the sitting room of his home near Westminster.

The 77-year-old farmer said he began gathering his signs right away Tuesday night because, well, it had to get done.

"I didn't want it to look like I was trashing the county," he said.

As Donald I. Dell became a lame duck last week - a victim of Republican voters' preference for a more moderate slate of candidates - supporters and adversaries alike said his no-nonsense style will be missed.

"He's become sort of a landmark in Carroll County politics," said Elmer C. Lippy Jr., who often sparred with Dell while serving on the board of commissioners from 1990 to 1994. "I respected him then, and I still respect him."

Ed Primoff, a Dell supporter who lost Tuesday in his own bid for a commissioners seat, said: "Whether or not they liked his policies, I never heard anyone call Donald dishonest."

And one of his harshest critics said he, too, respects Dell.

"I have no hard feelings toward Donald," said Ross Dangel, spokesman for the Freedom Area Citizens' Council, an Eldersburg community group that strongly opposed Dell's policies on growth.

Dell seemed resigned to his fate in the days leading up to the primary. Several powerful Republicans had asked him to step aside before he announced his candidacy, so he knew he stood on shaky political ground.

A mailing to thousands of households in the county urged his defeat and the nomination of more moderate Republicans.

Reached for comment on the eve of the election, he said, "I'm too busy to even be thinking about it. I'll be fine either way."

He spent little time stumping outside the polls the next day, a chore the shy dairy farmer had never liked much anyway.

And, as promised, he hardly seemed devastated when a more moderate slate - incumbent Julia Walsh Gouge, Dean Minnich and Perry L. Jones Jr. - prevailed and he finished seventh in the 10-candidate field.

The day after the election he answered the door smiling, an American flag tie shining against his crisp white shirt. "I'm still here," he said.

When his term ends in three months, Dell said, he'll relish not having to rise early every morning and not having to bring home dull reports for late-night reading.

Instead, he'll fix up his house, which overlooks the farm where he worked for so many years, and restore old tractors. No one would expect him to live a sedentary existence after 12 years of watching him bound up the stairs at the County Office Building while younger people took the elevator.

As he had while enduring years of criticism, Dell remained unapologetic for any of the decisions that might have hastened his political demise.

'The right thing'

"Basically, I feel what I've worked toward is the right thing," he said.

Dell grew up on a farm in Gamber and later ran his own dairy farm on Sullivan Road near Westminster. Two sons and three grandsons now run it.

He first sought office in 1982 based on the advice of a few community leaders he respected. Farmers had seen many of their development rights eliminated in a comprehensive rezoning four years earlier, and Dell thought they needed a greater voice in county policy-making.

He lost that first race and another in 1986. He won in 1990, campaigning on the slogan "Keep It Country," a reference to his belief in preserving as much of the county's farmland as possible.

Dell was re-elected in 1994 but endured a difficult second term often characterized by infighting between him and fellow Republicans Richard Yates and Ben Brown, who accused Dell of spending too much energy monitoring county employees when he should have concentrated on making policy.

In the 1998 primary, which included 13 candidates, Dell squeaked to victory by a 14-vote margin. His third term proved no easier than his second.

He was accused of approving land deals to help old friends and voting for measures that would cover his cherished farmland with subdivisions.

Dell also consistently supported building a water treatment plant at Piney Run Park, though South Carroll residents said the plant would ruin recreation at the park. State environmental officials haven't authorized it, saying it would open the door for more development.

The Piney Run dispute might have damaged him politically, and the new board might scuttle the project, Dell said, but he still thinks the plant should be built.

He called opposition to the project, "an excuse, a way to get me out of office, because building the plant is certainly the right thing to do."

During this year's campaign, critics said Dell had voted for a pro-development agenda and had not kept the county country.

He bristled at that. He served on boards that spent millions to preserve tens of thousands of farm acres, he said, and he encouraged numerous families to sell their farms into permanent preservation.

When his critics spoke at recent candidate forums, Dell often stared into space, a sign of his exasperation, he later said.

An eye for details

Dell said that when he thinks back on his work, he doesn't dwell on such contentious episodes or on major policy decisions. He has always liked detail work best.

He recalled Wednesday how he helped get a bathroom put into Piney Run Park for less than $20,000 after an initial bid of more than $100,000 and how he got islands put into a county parking lot.

"That's what this job is," he said. "There's always something coming or going daily, not things that make news but things that help people on a daily basis."

If Dell's fascination with minutiae irritated county employees and fellow commissioners at times, he is unapologetic.

"Some would say that's micromanaging, but I think that's being an administrator," he said.

Dell said his love for the daily job helped prompt his latest election bid. When others advised him not to run, that only made him defiant, he said. He registered his candidacy on the day of the filing deadline.

He thought he had a chance to win when the campaign started, he said, but with so many challengers targeting the incumbents, he felt the tide turning against him.

So when he returned home about midnight Tuesday with a truck full of signs, the news of his loss didn't shake him.

"Some people say I got what I deserved," he said. "But people who know me, they'll come up to me and tell me, 'You helped me,' even though a lot of times I don't remember the person, much less what I did for them. My conscience doesn't bother me at all."

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