12:54 PM PST, February 4, 2013
Former Anne Arundel County Executive John Leopold stands alone among Maryland's recent crop of disgraced politicians in that he actually appears to feel disgraced by the recent airing of his misdeeds at trial. In one case after another — Sheila Dixon, Janet Johnson, Daryl Jones, Tiffany Alston, Ulysses Currie — elected officials have displayed precious little shame and regret for their illegal or unethical behavior. Upon his conviction for offenses related to the misuse of his executive protection detail and his scheduler for political and/or scatological purposes, Mr. Leopold not only resigned but acknowledged "serious errors in judgment." In the end, he added a coda of responsibility to an otherwise sordid chapter in Anne Arundel County history.
The fallout from his resignation, though, promises a reprise of another sorry episode from the county's recent past. When Mr. Jones, an Anne Arundel councilman, was expelled by his colleagues after a federal conviction for tax fraud, the majority-Republican body took two months and 108 rounds of voting to decide on a Democrat to replace him. This time, the council will have 30 days to pick a Republican to replace Mr. Leopold, and intra-party dynamics — not to mention personal interest — threaten to create an even bigger circus.
The problem isn't a lack of qualified candidates for the post. Anne Arundel County has produced a bumper crop of young and ambitious Republican politicians in recent years, many of whom are quite talented. Rather, it's that the ability to serve out the remainder of Mr. Leopold's term will inevitably give a huge advantage to whichever one gets the job if he (and so far, all the aspirants are men) wants to run in his own right in 2014. That will make it difficult for the Republicans to coalesce around any one candidate and will provide an opportunity for the Democrats on the council to play politics, too.
Two Republican members of the council, John Grasso and Jerry Walker, have indicated an interest in taking over for Mr. Leopold, and amazingly enough, there is no actual rule against them voting for themselves. If any of the Democrats on the council have designs on running for executive in 2014, they, too, could face a conflict of interest in deciding which candidate to back. Would they want the best person for the job or the one who might be easiest to beat two years later?
County Republican leaders have expressed hope that they might coalesce around the person who would be their strongest candidate in 2014 in hopes of securing an advantage in that election. Sometimes, when this kind of situation has come up in Maryland politics, that has happened. In Harford County, the council had to choose a successor to Executive James Harkins in 2005 after he took a job in the Ehrlich administration. It voted 5-1 to name long-time Harford politician David Craig to the post. He went on to win two elections in his own right and is now viewed as a serious candidate for governor. In Baltimore County, Frederick L. Dewberry took over for convicted executive Dale Anderson in 1974, but he went on to lose in the primary to reform-minded Democrat Ted Venetoulis.
Politically, it might be easier for the Arundel council to coalesce around a caretaker candidate — someone who would be willing to serve out the remainder of Mr. Leopold's term but not run for election in 2014. State Sen. Edward Reilly, a former member of the council, has said he might be willing to serve in that capacity, and he would be well qualified to do so. However, selecting him solves one problem and creates another; he would then have to be replaced in the legislature.
The council will advertise the position and interview candidates, but the ideal solution to the problem may be the one already in place: Acting County Executive John Hammond. Mr. Leopold designated Mr. Hammond, who was county administrative officer, to take over in his absence, and he has said he is willing to serve in that capacity as long as the council wants but that he will not run in 2014. He understands the political demands of the job — he was a long-time Annapolis City Council member — and the administrative ones, having served as county budget chief under administrations from both parties. Anne Arundel County could do a lot worse.
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