Thirty years ago, George F. Johnson IV was working as a patrol officer for the Anne Arundel County Police Department when he decided it was time to move up. But he hardly studied a lick for the sergeant's test and failed.
"I didn't put the time and effort into it, to be honest with you," the Pasadena resident said.
Johnson learned a lesson about being prepared, one he remembers as the moderate Democrat tries to become Anne Arundel's next county executive.
Shortly after winning a third term as county sheriff in 2002, Johnson began methodically building an expansive campaign. He has won the endorsement of nearly every elected county Democrat. He has received the backing of several major employee unions. And he has raised in excess of $1 million - more than any other executive candidate in county history.
"If there's something else that I need to do, somebody needs to tell me, because I really feel that I have left no stone unturned," said Johnson, 53.
Johnson has made his stewardship of the sheriff's office a cornerstone of his campaign in the conservative-leaning county. He inherited a $700,000 deficit when he took over the agency in 1994 from Republican Robert G. Pepersack Sr. Johnson says he eliminated the shortfall and expanded the office's duties. Now the agency, which has a $7 million annual budget, returns nearly $1 million to the county coffers each year.
But some question whether the decorated 35-year law-enforcement veteran has a wide enough range of experience to be county executive.
Critics have also accused Johnson of mismanaging the sheriff's office. They point to a county audit in 2004 that cited embezzlement in his office and another in 2002 that showed Johnson spent hundreds of county dollars on greeting cards and pocketknives. His critics also cite high turnover among his deputies and a backlog of nearly 12,000 unserved warrants as other concerns.
"He's obviously in over his head currently, so what's he going to do when he gets in a more important job [in which] he's managing hundreds of more employees?" said John E. Moran IV, a Republican who unsuccessfully ran against Johnson in 2002 and is running again for sheriff this year.
Johnson's Republican opponent for executive, Del. John R. Leopold, has been critical of raises that Johnson received from the General Assembly in light of the pay of county sheriff's deputies. Johnson's pay has risen from $42,000 to $99,115. The starting pay for deputies is currently $33,000.
"A true leader would have reduced the backlog of warrants by increasing his deputies' pay," Leopold said.
Johnson, a past president of the Maryland Sheriffs' Association and a 23-year veteran of the county police force, said his managerial experience far exceeds that of Leopold, a career legislator. The sheriff said he has budgeting and policy experience that give him a better handle on how to oversee the county government.
Under Johnson, the sheriff's office has taken on the additional duties of serving all criminal and civil warrants in the county, overseeing landlord evictions, establishing a child fingerprint identification program and a child-support enforcement unit. His staff, about 30 in 1994, now numbers about 100. Johnson also supervises security at the county Circuit Court building in Annapolis, which opened in 1998 and is five times larger than the old one.
"The learning curve," he said on the stump recently, "will be very small for me."
The sheriff also said he has learned from mistakes about how his office handles money, after a clerk in his office was charged in 2004 with - and later convicted of - stealing more than $12,000. Johnson said his office has adopted new money-handling procedures from the auditor's office.
Johnson's supporters say their man accepts responsibility for his actions. They also say he knows how to reach out to people; he knows how to get along. They say the plain-spoken, affable sheriff defies party labels.
"He's not a Republican, he's not a Democrat - he's a nice guy," said John Smallwood, a retired county employee and a Johnson supporter.
At campaign events, Johnson draws people to him. He greets people with a warm handshake and attentive ear. Near the end of a fundraiser last month, he danced with his wife to a Vince Gill song on a flatbed trailer.
"He's very laid-back," said Chris O'Neill, a former county teacher who got to know Johnson's through his volunteer work with students. "He's a county boy. He's not pretentious. But he's smart."
Johnson has promoted bipartisanship and building coalitions to solve the problems of Anne Arundel, especially those concerning growth. Last month, five former county executives - including three Republicans - praised Johnson's integrity in endorsing his campaign.
Johnson has raised more than $1.3 million during the current four-year election cycle, much of it from developers, lawyers, unions and small businesses. He has been endorsed by U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, the Anne Arundel Sierra Club, the AFL-CIO and the county fire and police unions.
One of the former county executives to endorse Johnson, Robert R. Neall, spoke of how the county must begin to have a "civilized conversation" on how it will manage growth, and that Johnson would be the right man to start it.
Johnson says he understands the county's values, having lived in Anne Arundel since the age of 5. He went to school, was married, raised three children, worked and volunteered there.
"He doesn't do a whole lot for himself," said George Eber, a county firefighter who has known Johnson for 33 years. "He gives so much of himself for others. I have never met anybody like that."
Critics such as former Annapolis Mayor Dennis Callahan, a Democrat who lost to Johnson in the September primary, have criticized Johnson's relationship with lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano, who was convicted in 1994 of mail fraud arising from the overbilling of lobbying clients so that he could make campaign contributions. Bereano held a fundraiser for the sheriff in September at his home.
"That relationship should send chills down everyone's spine," Callahan said last month.
Johnson's campaign staff said the sheriff doesn't turn away support from anyone.
He said he is guided by the principles of his late father, George F. Johnson III, a former chairman of the state Democratic Central Committee, to work every day for his constituents. He's also influenced by his wife, Linda, who often accompanies him to campaign events.
Johnson joined the county police in 1972, after graduating from Cardinal Gibbons School in Baltimore. He passed the sergeant's test on his second and third tries, then became a detective in 1983, a platoon supervisor in 1986 and commander of the armed robbery and hostage negotiation unit in 1990.
In 1994, Johnson says, he was reading in the newspaper about mismanagement and budget deficits in the sheriff's office, and he decided to run against Pepersack. Running on a campaign of "For the People, Not the Money," Johnson criticized Pepersack's request for a 50 percent pay raise. Johnson won with 52 percent of the vote.
Johnson could afford to refrain from attacking Callahan in the primary, given his 13-to-1 advantage in raising money and his numerous endorsements. With a flurry of positive cable TV ads and mailings, he won by a 3-2 margin.
"My parents said that if you can't say anything good about somebody, don't say anything at all," Johnson said in a debate after Callahan attacked him on the unserved warrants.
Following attacks by Leopold and polls showing the race neck and neck, Johnson began airing TV ads that tied Leopold to massive electric rate increases. Leopold had voted for electric deregulation in 1999 but said he only took one contribution of $100 from BGE in 20 years in the legislature.
Still, even Leopold has acknowledged Johnson's personal qualities. "My opponent George Johnson is a likable man," Leopold said at a recent debate. "He is a gentleman, and that can be a very powerful force."
George F. Johnson IV (D)
Date of birth: Sept. 23, 1953
Occupation: Anne Arundel County sheriff
Political/government experience: Cadet, Anne Arundel County Police Department, 1972-1974; officer, 1974-1983; detective, 1983-1986; platoon supervisor, 1986- 1988; administrative assistant to chief of police, 1988-1990; commander, robbery and hostage negotiation units, 1990- 1994; legislative chairman, Maryland Sheriffs' Association, 1994-present.
Education: Associate's degree in criminal justice, Anne Arundel Community College; graduate, National Sheriffs' Institute; graduate, FBI Academy.
Home/Family: Pasadena, married with three children
What are your top three priorities?
1) Improving the school system, providing a quality education to all children
2) Managing growth
3) Environmental issues related to protecting the Chesapeake Bay
Campaign Web site: www.votegeorgejohnson.com