Riley aims to shake up county status quo


Douglas B. Riley, the Republican candidate for Baltimore County executive, has lived in Towson for 20 years, but the Massachusetts native still has a little North Attleboro in him.

His upbringing in the tiny Boston suburb has left him with a slight accent in his speech - he still says gohvmint rather than government - and on his politics.

While his Democratic opponent, James T. Smith Jr., comes form an old Reisterstown family steeped in the local rec council and political club, Riley displays something of an outsider's perspective.

The county has never had an executive who lived in another part of the country for any significant amount of time.

In North Attleboro, issues were decided in town hall meetings where every resident had a vote. Riley's father and grandfather were elected members of the school board, an impossibility in Baltimore County, where that body is selected by the governor.

Riley is a Massachusetts Republican by family tradition, but that affiliation translates strangely in the world of Baltimore County politics, where conservative Democrats rule.

"This is probably the only race you'll find where the Democrat is more conservative than the Republican," he said.

While that's not the case on every issue, Riley is certainly interested in changes to the status quo.

He promises a top-to-bottom review of the county government. He promises to stop immediately construction on the Towson jail expansion. He promises to move the offices of economic development and communication out of their space next to the executive's office and to move in the offices of community conservation and substance abuse.

He said he would consider a residential development moratorium until the county can take care of its traffic and school-crowding problems.

"We're not going to have new development," Riley recently told the Woodlawn Rotary Club. "We're publicly going to acknowledge we've grown too much for our roads, we've grown too much for our schools. We've grown enough in people, and we'll focus now on quality of life."

Riley lobbied for an amendment to the charter giving the County Council the power to confirm the executive's appointments to head county departments, a move that would diminish the executive's power. Smith lobbied against it.

Deciding everything by town meeting in a county of 750,000 obviously wouldn't work, but the system of government Riley grew up with still influences his thinking.

Public discourse

"I like the public discourse that is part of decision-making," he says. "It's not smooth and it's not as neat and well-packaged, but I think it's more healthy."

Riley himself is not always smooth, neat and well-packaged. As a politician, he is more apt to be blunt than careful, and critics say his demeanor sometimes crosses the line from confident to cocky.

At times, he's had to back-pedal after putting his foot in his mouth, most notably in 1993 when, in a discussion of zoning for assisted-living facilities for the elderly, he was quoted as saying, "I don't want to raise a family of little kids between two houses of old people."

He later apologized and said his comments had been taken out of context.

Councilman Vincent J. Gardina, a Perry Hall Democrat who served with Riley from 1990 to 1998, said he thought Riley was honest and hard-working but would sometimes get carried away.

"His only drawback, and I probably have a similar one, is that we both have an Irish background, and we both have a little bit of a temper at times," Gardina said. "At times, his temper got the best of him, but I think he was in office for all the right reasons."

Riley, 49, was born in Attleboro, Mass. He graduated from North Attleboro High School in 1970. He received a bachelor's degree in government and legal studies from Bowdoin College in 1974 and a law degree from Tulane University School of Law in 1979.

After law school, Riley joined the Naval Reserve and served as a lieutenant in the Judge Advocate General's Corps for three years. He then joined the Baltimore law firm of Miles & Stockbridge, where he worked for 10 years before starting a private practice. In 1998, he joined the firm of Rosenberg, Proutt, Funk & Greenberg.

He has been married for 23 years to the former Eileen Carr. He has a daughter at Colby College, a daughter in the 11th grade at Towson High School and a son in the eighth grade at Loyola High School.

Out of public eye

Riley pledged in 1990 when he first ran for County Council that he would serve no more than two terms. He admits that at the time he thought there would be something else for him to run for in eight years, but County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger was riding high in 1998, so Riley stepped out of public life for four years.

In his stump speech, Riley says it was Senate Bill 509, an unpopular community revitalization plan that would have given the government condemnation powers, that brought him out of retirement, but he has been involved in a handful of other issues during the past four years, including the protests over the Towson jail expansion and County Council redistricting.

Riley's hiatus turns out to be less damaging than it could have been - Smith stepped down from the County Council in 1985 and served as a Circuit Court judge for 16 years, putting him largely out of the public eye as well. And although it hurt his ability to become known to residents in other parts of the county, Riley's stepping down helped cement his reputation with his Towson constituents.

Riley's bedrock of support in his county executive bid are members of Towson-area community groups, who almost universally hold him in high regard.

"He was very pro-community," said Conrad Poniatowski, president of the Greater Towson Council of Community Associations. "He was very well organized and had a very good staff, which meant he was able to respond to problems very quickly. ... He was a very effective councilman."

Riley came to the council in 1990, a year of revolution in Baltimore County government. Roger B. Hayden, a Republican, toppled Democratic County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen, and five new councilmen were elected.

Riley's party had more power in the county for those four years than at any other time since Spiro T. Agnew was elected county executive in 1962. Riley was elected chairman in his first year on the job.

Interparty alliance

Some of his Democratic colleagues from the time complain that he was overly partisan, but his conduct from those years is defended by an unlikely source: Ruppersberger, the man whose record as county executive Riley has spent the last 18 months criticizing.

Ten years ago, Baltimore magazine ran a photo of the pair standing arm in arm, praising Ruppersberger and his "trusty sidekick" Riley, then both county councilmen, as the most effective tandem in local government.

The council, both men now recall, was badly fractured, but in those times of painful budget negotiations with Hayden, Riley and Ruppersberger formed a highly effective partnership - Riley could always find a Republican to vote with him, and Ruppersberger could always find a Democrat.

Riley now complains that Ruppersberger has grown "arrogant" in his years as county executive, and Ruppersberger said he doesn't understand why Riley has to be "so negative all the time," but both men still have framed clippings of that photo on their office walls.

Much of Riley's stump speech is critical of Ruppersberger - he hammers the executive for S.B. 509 and the expansion of the Towson jail, both instances, he said, of arrogant disregard of public input.

But he also gives Ruppersberger credit for infrastructure improvements, investments on the east side and the establishment of the Office of Community Conservation as a full-fledged county department.

Riley takes a nuanced view of Democrats in general. Although he strongly supports Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s gubernatorial bid, for example, he, unlike many Republicans, does not bash Ehrlich's Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville Democrat who served alongside Riley for one term and once shared a legal office with him, said Riley seemed to mature in office.

"My understanding was that during [Riley's first term], he could be somewhat politically partisan in his demeanor, but I did not get that sense during the term that I worked with him," Kamenetz said. "He liked to chide Democrats, but I think it was just in jest because he knew he was in the minority both in terms of political party and, perhaps, in persuasiveness."

As an executive candidate, Riley strives to present himself as nonpartisan - "There are no Republican potholes or Democratic potholes, just streets in need of repair" - but he does use his party to sell the idea that he, and not his opponent, represents real change.

"The state of Maryland and Baltimore County have been controlled by one party for 35 years, more than a generation now," Riley says. "The result is the people in power have become arrogant and they have run out of ideas. If the Republican Party had been in power for a whole generation unchecked as well, we too would be arrogant and out of ideas."

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