There is a certain consistency about John R. Leopold. He dresses like a college professor, typically wearing a blue dress shirt, red sweater vest and a navy blue suit jacket. He speaks Mandarin and has an appetite for reading American history. He enjoys talking local politics and policy, often at a favorite Glen Burnie diner.
He also likes to run for office - he has been doing it for nearly 40 years. He is known for knocking on thousands of doors and waving signs along roads. He is a Republican who has stressed constituent service in running successfully in a bedrock Democratic district.
Oh, and for nearly as long as Leopold has lived in Anne Arundel County, he has wanted to be county executive. After so many starts and stops and about-faces in his 25-year career in county politics, Leopold will learn in a few days whether he will achieve his goal.
Leopold, 63, has made a political life out of taking the economy-class approach to campaigning. For this race, the five-term state delegate and Pasadena resident is serving as his own campaign manager and spokesman. He has put up hundreds of his own signs.
Few question Leopold's smarts, his political skills or ethics; he has received bipartisan praise for his constituent work. Yet he has a reputation for aloofness, not always working well with other lawmakers and praising his own accomplishments while bucking his party. Others wonder if the career legislator - who has dabbled in art, public relations, teaching, coaching and college administration - has the executive experience to run county government with a $1.3 billion budget and more than 4,000 employees.
"John's an excellent politician, but he doesn't have the management skills to do that job," said former County Executive John G. Gary, a Republican who served with Leopold in the House of Delegates. Gary has endorsed Leopold's opponent, Sheriff George F. Johnson IV.
Since his primary win over four other challengers, Leopold has received tepid support from Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. - a telling point, some political observers say. Leopold voted this year to oppose the governor's efforts to take over several Baltimore schools. Leopold says he has voted with Ehrlich 90 percent of the time.
"While [the governor] has been disappointed with some of Delegate Leopold's votes in the past, he supports the Republican ticket," said Ehrlich's campaign spokeswoman, Shareese N. DeLeaver.
Del. David G. Boschert, who lost to Leopold in the primary, said he worked well with Leopold over the years as they regularly co-sponsored each other's legislation. But he has heard plenty of complaints about Leopold, too.
"No one is an 'I' in politics," Boschert said. "Every elected official knows that they never do that by themselves."
Boschert added of Leopold: "He has a style about him. I compliment him on his style."
Leopold says he has a record of legislative accomplishment - on reducing property taxes, establishing the creation of charter schools, providing math and science scholarships, protecting well water and restricting panhandling - that speaks to his ability to work smartly and across party lines. He has served on four presidential commissions over 30 years. In 2000, he was named the National Republican Legislators Association's Legislator of the Year.
"I'm far from aloof," Leopold said. "You don't get to be national Legislator of the Year unless you are a bridge builder, a bipartisan bridge builder. I have a reputation of working with both parties to get things done."
He is resented, Leopold said, because of his independence. He said he has been deemed a political threat ever since he first won election to the Maryland House of Delegates in 1982, becoming the first Republican to win in the Democratic stronghold of District 31.
He also said his ability to draw from his personal wealth - he has lent at least $355,000 to his Maryland campaigns - reinforces that point.
"I'm not on the developer team or on the corporate interest team," Leopold said. "I am on the team aligned with the working-class people of this county."
A Philadelphia native, Leopold graduated with an English degree from Hamilton College in New York state, then first made a political name for himself in Hawaii. He won statewide office three times there, building his name recognition with his penchant for sign-waving. He was the first Republican in state history to be elected to the state board of education (1968). He went on to win election as a state representative (1970) and state senator (1974). He unsuccessfully ran for Hawaii governor as the Republican nominee in 1978, getting 45 percent of the vote in the overwhelmingly Democratic state.
Even in Hawaii, he was accused of being a self-promoter. After losing his bid for governor, he pursued his old Senate seat and a delegate slot in the 1980 Republican National Convention. That move angered a prominent senator who said Leopold had agreed to run for one or the other, not both. Leopold won a seat to the national convention but lost the Senate race. He left a short time later for Maryland.
Leopold has flirted with a race for county executive as far back as 1985. He nearly switched to the Democratic Party in 1990 when then-Republican Robert R. Neall announced his candidacy, thwarting Leopold's plans, but instead ran for the state Senate that year and lost.
In 1994, he considered challenging Gary in the Republican primary. In the end, he won back his House seat.
At candidates forums this year, Leopold has stuck to talking policy, rarely straying into the personal realm. Leopold has been divorced three times and has no children.
He hasn't been shy about attacking his opponents, at times.
At a recent debate, Leopold said his mother, Baltimore native Eunice Robinson Leopold, wasn't sure he could stake out a career in politics. "I thought you were too nice," Leopold recalled his mother saying once, "but I was wrong."
After five former county executives (including Neall and Gary) recently endorsed Johnson, Leopold criticized some for their ties to developers. Leopold said his first interest would be to the people, not to the builders. "I'm not part of the good-ol'-boy network," Leopold said.
It's a theme he's struck before.
He told The Washington Post in 1989: "I've very independent-minded. I'm not part of the old-boy network."
These days, Leopold is a full-time legislator, living off a pension from Hawaii, his legislator's salary and a family inheritance. He has declined to elaborate further.
He has used his financial means to intimidate others from challenging him. Some have questioned whether Leopold would try to win this race against Johnson - who has raised more than $1.3 million since 2002 - on the cheap. (Nearly all his campaign signs only say, "Leopold.") But Leopold has begun spending thousands of his own dollars. For this campaign alone, he has raised $234,000 and has lent his campaign an additional $263,000.
Leopold has been endorsed by four Republican County Council members, the Anne Arundel County Taxpayers Association, former Annapolis Mayor Dennis Callahan (who lost in the Democratic primary to Johnson), as well as by The Sun, The Post and The (Annapolis) Capital.
Leopold's supporters say his critics' attacks lack merit.
"A lot of people are looking for something negative about somebody," said Republican George M. Nutwell Jr., the county's longtime register of wills and a Leopold backer.
Referring to critics who call Leopold a self-promoter, Nutwell said: "Maybe that's the only thing that can be said of John. It's a plus, as far as I am concerned. He has the knowledge and the ability to put forth himself without the need for a whole lot of hangers-on."
For his current run, Leopold has knocked on more than 17,000 doors countywide. He stresses personal contact as a way to win crossover votes.
Recently, on Summit Avenue in Glen Burnie, Leopold was sign-waving when a driver pulled up to chat with the legislator. The motorist told Leopold, "I saw you here on this corner 19 years ago."
John R. Leopold (R)
Date of birth: Feb. 4, 1943
Occupation: Member, Maryland House of Delegates
Political experience: Hawaii Board of Education, 1968-1970; Hawaii state representative, 1970-1974; Hawaii state senator, 1974-1978; Republican nominee for Hawaii governor, 1978; delegate for Maryland District 31, 1982-1990, 1994-present.
Education: B.S. in English, Hamilton College, New York
Home/Family: Pasadena, single
What are your three top priorities?
1) Effectively manage growth by using a revised general development plan, capital project schedules and Smart Growth initiatives
2) Expand constituent service through a 311 system
3) Re-establish trust on fiscal matters
Campaign Web site: www.johnleopold.com