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War service could boost election odds for Cassilly


Is it too early to start forecasting the 2010 election?

Perhaps, but Harford State's Attorney Joseph I. Cassilly stoked the flames Wednesday when asked about the political future of his brother, Robert, the County Council representative for Bel Air who was activated for duty in Iraq this week and will not be able to run for re-election in the fall.

Joseph Cassilly, an Army ranger who was paralyzed during combat in Vietnam and is finishing his sixth term as county state's attorney, said his brother will receive newfound respect as a politician should he run for office four years from now.

"After he comes back from an overseas assignment, he'll have that many more qualifications and that much more bigger of a constituency," he said.

With a family history of military service - his father was a command sergeant major in the special forces - Robert G. Cassilly said his participation in the reserves comes from a sense of duty to his country, not a notch on his political belt.

"I believe it's important [to serve]," said Cassilly, who leaves behind his wife, Deborah, and five children. "It's important to have good people involved, who believe in what they do."

But even the most casual political watchers acknowledge that war credentials can give politicians a boost. Prince George's Democrat Del. Anthony G. Brown's star was rising before he served a nine-month stint in Iraq. He returned to a slew of possibilities that culminated in his being tapped as Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley's running mate in the fall gubernatorial election.

The unexpected vacancy in Harford is creating possibilities for several potential candidates who might have been eyeing a run for council in 2010 but see a chance to run now, observers said. The county's political power brokers were buzzing this week over who would make a run at the District C seat.

Cassilly was a Bel Air town commissioner when he won his seat on the County Council by the largest margin of victory in Harford in 2002. James "Captain Jim" McMahan Jr., a Bel Air commissioner, has been rumored for months to be seeking a spot on the council. Michael A. Geppi, a Bel Air advertising business owner, narrowly lost to Cassilly in the 2002 primary and might make another run. David E. Carey, the former mayor of Bel Air who ran unsuccessfully for the House of Delegates, also could be in the mix.

Sitting council members, meanwhile, still were reeling from Cassilly's announcement at the conclusion of Tuesday's meeting that he would be leaving this weekend. It was the first time any of them had heard the news.

"I think he's represented his district extremely well. He's very in tune to every subject and every issue we look at," said Dion F. Guthrie, a Democrat from Joppatowne. "I'm hoping it's a short stay and he can get back on the council before the election. I hope he re-runs."

But that possibility was quashed at midnight Tuesday when Cassilly officially began active duty. He had not yet filed to run for re-election, and active duty military are prohibited from engaging in political activity under Department of Defense Directive 1344.10. If he had filed the paperwork before Wednesday, Cassilly could have had a family member or associate run his campaign, according to two Army officials.

The council must now proceed with six voting members, a problematic number should they be evenly divided on an issue. This week they will vote on the county's comprehensive rezoning package, and budget deliberations will begin in the spring.

"For the shorter term, we have maybe five or six months of having to deal with a six-member council," said Council President Robert S. Wagner. "The reason it was set up as seven [members] is that it takes four to get anything done. You run the high risk of 3-3 votes, which means the motion fails. You're deadlocked."

Harford's charter outlines that Cassilly cannot be forced to step down, nor does he intend to - at least until his training in North Carolina is over in six to eight weeks, he said. Several factors, including injury, could keep him from heading to Iraq, he said.

If he were to resign, the county charter calls for the Republican Central Committee to present three candidates to be voted on by the council. It's a rare scenario, but one that the current council has experience with. Last summer, County Executive James M. Harkins stepped down to take a job with the state and the council was charged with selecting his replacement. They went with Havre de Grace Mayor David R. Craig.

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