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Buffoon or conservative populist – we don't know yet

Connoisseurs of political buffoonery give two thumbs up to the election season just ended, with Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate posing as evangelical gynecologists, and Karl Rove melting down after Fox News called Ohio for the president.

But, here in Maryland, totally underrated nationally as a breeding ground of buffoons, we have great local resources. The Chesapeake crab population might rise and fall; the shad run might be robust in some years, slow in others. But you can always count on seeing bright new political stars rising to entertain us.

So here comes John Grasso, Glen Burnie's biggest noisemaker.

I'm not saying he's a buffoon. I'm saying there's potential.

Grasso has been a member of the Anne Arundel County Council for just under two years, and he's living up to his campaign pledge to say what's on his mind and "speak the truth," no matter the consequences.

To hear him tell it, this is exactly why the Republican self-made millionaire ran for office — because too many other politicians, worried about offending somebody, tell people only what they want to hear.

"People are sick of politicians who won't tell them the truth," Grasso said over the phone Wednesday afternoon. "People want someone who tells it like it is, and that's what I promised. Some people can't take it. But with me, they'll hear the truth and they'll always know exactly where I'm coming from."

What occasioned this conversation was a report in The Baltimore Sun that several voters had complained about Grasso's behavior during early voting at North County High School last month.

They said Grasso had bullied and berated them as they waited in line to vote. Complaints about this have been filed with the county elections board.

One voter claimed Grasso yelled at him and jabbed a finger into his face as his children looked on. During a conversation about a county ballot measure, the voter said, Grasso spoke in "a very unprofessional and degrading manner and began to resort to childish and loud name calling."

Contacted by Sun reporter Erin Cox, Grasso said the voter had made a wisecrack about the electioneering boundaries at the polling place. "He said something to me, and I fired back," Grasso said. "If you can't take it, don't dish it out."

Which is a fine attitude — if you're a guy in a bar looking to mix it up with another guy.

It's not so fine if you hold elected office. I mean, berating and bullying constituents is not exactly in the manual.

Doesn't bother Grasso.

He says he ran for office, spending $52,000 of his own money, because, at 49, he had reached a point where he needed to take a bigger bite out of life. "I felt incomplete," he said. "I felt I could do good for the county." He thought about being a cop, but chose county councilman instead.

He says his supporters encouraged him to be himself as he ran for office: " 'Be you' is what they told me. 'Just be you.'"

And that's sort of what the people of Anne Arundel County have been getting.

Early last year, Grasso reversed his stance on a collective-bargaining bill before the council, and a retired firefighter threatened to slap him. Grasso didn't care. He smiled and gave two thumbs up, and the crowd in the council chamber booed him.

During a council discussion about a low-income housing project, Grasso referred to Glen Burnie as the "new ghetto," and he wasn't about to apologize for the remark when people complained about it.

He didn't seem to care about the lack of diversity on the County Council, either. Last winter, the council's only African-American member had a little income tax problem and had to go away for a while. That left the council all male and all white, with a vacancy.

Grasso was among those who did not seem inclined to consider the need for diversity in filling the vacancy. He missed a discussion of this issue sponsored by a historically black sorority. Asked why he didn't attend, Grasso said he forgot about it, adding with Limbaughian sarcasm that he was "saddened to have missed it."

He's been a defender of John Leopold, the indicted county executive and fellow Republican accused, among other things, of using his police security detail to arrange sexual encounters in cars in parking lots. "You don't know if it's true or not," Grasso said of the charges. "John Leopold is 69 years old. If he can still work it like that at the age of 69, good for him."

Last year, Grasso called himself a birther, one of those who don't believe President Barack Obama was born in the United States.

So there's all that: slightly wacky, unapologetic bluster and the caustic conservative's special ownership of "truth." Those things are either the marks of a certain kind of political populism or the symptoms of early-onset buffoonery. At this point, with John Grasso, it could go either way. We don't know yet. This star bears further watching.

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