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'It all comes back to building community'

Aberdeen's new mayor is not afraid to get his hands dirty

First in a series of Harford County municipal mayors profiles.

Patrick McGrady is into politics, even if he says that's not entirely so. He ran for state delegate at age 25 (losing when many thought he'd win), has led local chapters of the limited government advocating Campaign for Liberty and remains one of the longer-serving members of the Harford County Republican Central Committee.

For McGrady, who, at 29, became mayor of his hometown of Aberdeen last year after almost winning the post in 2011 (when he lost by 26 votes), politics is just a means to an end, a way to get problems solved.

"Politics is lame, it's boring, it's tedious and it's often a headache," he said with a smile during an interview in his City Hall office, still sparsely decorated since he unseated eight-year mayor Mike Bennett in November. McGrady isn't very interested in appearances, noting he isn't worried who sees his somewhat cluttered desk.

"It's not like I get involved in politics to accomplish being the governor of Maryland or be the president or whatever. It's that I see the problems with the incentives that the government creates and, as a mechanism of changing that, I get involved in the political process," he said, explaining his ultimate goal is a highly individual one of trying "to make everybody better off, because I care about people."

"It's not about politics, or me being 'the guy' or anything, it's about how to do the most for the most people, so I do a lot of community stuff in addition to the government stuff," he said.

If there's one thing that personifies McGrady as mayor, it's not an ideology but an object: a shovel.

The new mayor likes to carry a shovel on his trips around town, in case he needs to clear weeds from a Middleton Road median or tackle some highway overgrowth.

One of his mayoral "headaches" is the gritty overpass that snakes around the Amtrak/MARC train station and connects East Aberdeen and downtown. The overpass is controlled by State Highway Administration and is a frequent source of complaints about tall overgrowth of grass and weeds where the road parallels the railroad tracks.

"[SHA] said it's on their radar, but it takes forever dealing with the government...I told the complainant yesterday that I would get the shovel out and do it," McGrady said. As he drove a reporter and photographer across the overpass, two SHA workers were getting ready to go to work at the bottom.

That's another thing that bothers McGrady, that being the mayor gives him more clout. "It's a clear favoritism for me when I'm the mayor, and that's not right," he said.

When red tape becomes too much, though, McGrady said he'll just do it himself.

He personally built a projector screen at the Festival Park gazebo for the new Third Fridays series, which most recently drew hundreds of visitors for a showing of "Zootopia" and for some other community fun.

The U.S. Postal Service has been refusing to build a handicapped ramp at the Aberdeen post office, claiming there is already one at the Belcamp post office a few miles away, McGrady said. He's thinking of just building one himself.

Strong Aberdeen roots

The hands-on approach is not new for McGrady, who grew up in his family's construction and real estate business.

He is manager of Holly Circle Townhouses LLC, Cranberry Run Construction Company Inc. and MAPA LLC, making McGrady the heir to his late grandparents, Leonard and Goldie McGrady's, legacy of building hundreds of homes in the Aberdeen Hills, Hillcrest and Dorseyvale neighborhoods, among others, from the 1950s to the early 2000s, according to his biography posted on the city website.

McGrady attended Bakerfield and Lisby at Hillsdale Elementary schools and Aberdeen Middle and High schools, before graduating from Penn State University with degrees in economics and finance in 2008. He also studied accounting at Harford Community College.

He continues to work on personal building projects like restoring the original Grace Methodist Church on West Bel Air Avenue, and has since taken on rehabbing the adjacent parsonage as well.

The McGrady family has been one of Aberdeen's biggest landlords for decades, which hasn't always endeared the name to all, but the mayor is proud of his family and its accomplishments. He says he's baffled by the nickname "Shady McGrady" that goes back to his grandfather's era, but is quick to add he's not bothered by it and doesn't stand on appearances, anyway.

"My father and mother and siblings, we go out of our way to do what is fair and equitable, and sometimes that means we eat it, when a tenant skips on the rent [for example]," he said, noting his family does not take any federal housing subsidies or other government help. "Any of our tenants today that we have worked with would say that we do everybody right... The work ethic was instilled in us from a young age."

McGrady also isn't bashful about stirring up controversy.

In the fall of 2011, he filed an ethics complaint against then-mayor Bennett, whom McGrady was trying to unseat, over a trip Bennett took to help Ripken Baseball, owner of the Aberdeen IronBirds minor league baseball team and the sole tenant of the city-owned Ripken Stadium, pitch a new stadium deal for one of its other minor league teams in Augusta, Ga.

The city's ethics commission ruled the mayor should have given some public notification of the trip and its purpose and "admonished" him for not doing so. That ruling came just days before the November 2011 city election, where Bennett won another term, but just barely, over McGrady.

The ethics panel later modified its ruling and Bennett, still unsatisfied and claiming his reputation had been tarnished, appealed the final ruling to Harford County Circuit Court, where a judge threw out the ruling and, in the process, criticized McGrady's ambivalence about defending his complaint before the court.

McGrady was a late entrant into last fall's mayoral race, where two other candidates had already filed to oppose Bennett, including long-time city councilwoman and former mayor Ruth Elliott. To the surprise of many, including Bennett, McGrady polled the most votes, this time beating the incumbent mayor by 44 votes out of 1,785 cast among the four candidates.

McGrady's enmity toward Bennett continues. The new mayor noted he got rid of a brand-new Ford Explorer outfitted for law enforcement that Bennett was assigned and instead continues to drive his old, light-blue Ranger pick-up truck with a busted air-conditioning unit.

"I'm not going to say that I like to pick fights, but when there's things that need to be said, I'm not afraid of confrontation. There are things that need to be said in an election season that voters need to be aware of, there are things once you're elected that need to be said," McGrady replied when asked if he's someone who likes to provoke people.

Early tension with council

The first few months of McGrady's term as mayor, which runs until November 2019, were filled with tension and controversy, as he struggled to get along with City Council members Sandra Landbeck, Melvin Taylor and Tim Lindecamp, all considerably older than the mayor and all of whom ran on a campaign ticket with Bennett.

The controversy was sparked by an unprecedented open seat on the four-member council, caused when two candidates, incumbent Stephen Smith and Sean DeBonis, tied in the election. Smith had run on the Bennett ticket, while DeBonis had run with McGrady's support.

Because the city has no provision in its charter for dealing with such situations, the city attorney advised the seat should be considered vacant and the mayor should fill the vacancy, subject to an affirmative vote of the council (the mayor also having a vote).

McGrady first nominated DeBonis, who was summarily rejected by the council members. He then tapped another former ticket-mate, Jason Kolligs, who was also rejected by the others. Meanwhile, McGrady refused to consider appointing Smith, declining to say why but telling the council members he would listen to other suggestions for potential nominees.

Finally, after a stalemate that lasted five months, McGrady nominated Steve Goodin, who had never run for office or been involved in city politics, and the council members voted 3-1 to confirm the appointment without a harsh word passing between them and the mayor.

While he believes some of the early criticism he received, including from an editorial in The Record that called him "petulant," bordered on ageism, McGrady nevertheless bushes off his rough start with the council.

"It's great now. We praise each other privately, we praise each other publicly," he said of the relationship. "In retrospect, it was a great experience for the council... It has been a great learning experience."

In early June, when the council passed the mayor's first budget, McGrady was effusive in his praise of the council members for their work on it.

Amid the controversy over filling the vacant council seat, McGrady also had to grapple with the departure of 10-year city manager Doug Miller, who left for a similar position with Ocean City.

Initially McGrady had said he would take on the city manager duties temporarily, but after discussions with the council decided to go with having the public works director, Kyle Torster, act in that capacity.

The mayor and council then agreed to appoint a commission to screen candidates and make recommendations for the post, which is responsible for running the city on a day-to-day basis. The new city manager they hired, Randy Robertson, started to work in July.

Miller wrote in an email that he was impressed during his brief time working with McGrady.

"I found the new mayor to be very bright and I believe that he has the potential to be a truly fine mayor," he wrote. "He picks up on complex issues quickly and has the ability to see the big picture. I also was impressed with his commitment to constituent service, especially during the blizzard in January."

An advocate, not a star

McGrady has stayed committed to his view of the mayor as advocate and community supporter, not the star of the show. He created the Aberdeen Community Foundation to donate his entire mayoral salary of roughly $15,000 to local causes. (The salary for the part-time position was increased, not without controversy, by the previous mayor and council.)

"I'm not a rich guy, and it is a burden on my family to spend all the time doing this and then not be compensated for it, but it was a commitment that I made, and I think that it is a just thing," he said.

That means McGrady's non-mayoral work supports his wife, Liz, who stays at home with their 2-year-old-son, Independence, and 11-month-old daughter, Remy, on Paradise Road.

They attend Aberdeen's Living Hope Presbyterian Church, planted six years ago by Abingdon's New Covenant. Living Hope's pastor, Don Dove, called McGrady a "great guy" who is "really energetic" and "a very loving father and husband to Liz."

"Since he became mayor, the thing I have just noticed about him, and even the way that he serves, is, he genuinely cares about the community and people," Dove said, calling McGrady's approach "cool and refreshing."

"I think he is a good fit for the role that he is playing right now. He loves God and his neighbor, and it shows in the way that he lives his life, both in the church family and community," Dove said.

Whether it's starting the Third Fridays event to bring families out to Festival Park, supporting people trying to start mentorship programs or personally cleaning up neighborhoods, McGrady has stayed busy trying to bring people together and get them to care about their neighborhood. He stopped by a recent Badges For Baseball event at the Boys & Girls Club, where he chatted with Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation officials running the law enforcement mentorship program and helped carry bags of ice. He is working to revive a group for churches to meet and work on local issues.

"I think my job isn't to force stuff to happen, but when I can advocate on behalf of the Boys & Girls Club or on behalf of the schools or the developers, I try," McGrady said, adding the key is community pride and local action, whether it's in East Aberdeen or in the growing neighborhood by Ripken Stadium.

"People need to be involved with their neighbors. It's a real blue-collar neighborhood over here, there's lots of families with only one parent at home, and when we work together as a community, we can do big stuff," he said of East Aberdeen, where there was a double homicide in June and a fatal stabbing early Friday. "So, that's why the school is central to that and the Boys & Girls Club provides a lot of help in helping these families make it work."

"My vision for everybody is, everybody gets along, everybody knows their neighbors," he continued, "and that's whether that's here or on the other side of Aberdeen, and so, they're not afraid to ask for help when they need it."

Building a community first

When it comes to big plans like fixing up the Amtrak/MARC train station to make it a community hub, "you can't do these kinds of projects and then expect the magic to happen," he said. "It all comes back to building community."

By example, he said, the State Highway Administration's ongoing construction to improve Route 22 from I-95 to Aberdeen Proving Ground will be "net-neutral" for Aberdeen, as "it just makes it easier for the people who make $100,000 to go through [Aberdeen] and go to Fallston."

McGrady is also quick to add that it's not about him or his vision. When asked what he might want his legacy to be, he waved the question away, saying he doesn't care.

"I don't care if anyone forgets I am here," he said.

He also didn't want to focus on his feelings about being mayor of his hometown.

"It's great that I get to govern the city that I grew up in, but it's not about me, again," he said. "I really try to solve problems, and it [being mayor] gives me the opportunity to solve lots of them."

"Everybody pins their hopes on the future as, 'Somebody's going to do something,'" whether it's Congress or state government, McGrady said.

"This is why I have the shovel, because if you want to do something, you have to do it."

This story has been updated to correct a prior editing error. The appointment of Steven Goodin to the Aberdeen City Council was approved on a 3-1 vote. Councilman Tim Lindecamp voted against seating Goodin.

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