By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 27, 2006
While some candidates threw victory parties on election night and others gathered supporters for glum concession speeches, the man who would be county executive of Anne Arundel did neither. Instead, John R. Leopold spent the night sitting on his girlfriend's couch, watching the returns on TV with her and his cat.
Considered an outsider and loner -- even by some in his own Republican Party -- Leopold is poised to become the county's leader and the GOP's most prominent executive in Maryland. His election has caused many to wonder just who he is -- this man who has for decades campaigned on his own, this man who stood on road after road with a red wooden sign that reads simply, "Leopold," with no mention of party, position or even a first name.
"With the Republicans wiped out in the last election, he is suddenly the shining star," said Dan Nataf, a political scientist at Anne Arundel Community College. "But he's not closely linked to anyone, even in his own party. He's an enigma."
Leopold, 63, has served as a legislator -- first in Hawaii and now in Maryland -- for three decades. From his time in office, two opposing accounts have emerged.
Critics call him an opportunist, a lone wolf whose self-serving actions have turned colleagues against him.
The other view, held by many voters, portrays him as a master of constituent services. He is known for sending handwritten notes to residents after a death in the family, marriage or even promotion to Eagle Scout.
What's indisputable is the unending campaign that has consumed his life.
Year after year, election or not, he has knocked on doors across the county, accumulating votes with a handshake and a smile. He plants his own signs, answers his own phone and acts as his own campaign manager-spokesman.
There is almost no furniture in his blue-gray townhouse in Pasadena -- no signs of occupancy except for the big stacks of voter registration lists that cover every inch of surface space and decades of newspaper clippings piled high in the little office upstairs.
Leopold explains his spartan house this way: "Campaigning requires discipline. I don't have time to do much else."
Born and raised in a well-off Philadelphia family, he tried abstract painting before getting hooked on politics during a stint as research assistant for U.S. Sen. Hugh Scott (R-Pa.). At 24, interested in its Asian culture and determined to create a political career on his own, he flew to Hawaii.
His first year there, he won a state school board seat, a Republican in a state dominated by Democrats. Within 10 years, he would become the GOP's candidate for governor.
His sharp rise, however, did not come without controversy. One Honolulu newspaper noted "his penchant for grabbing publicity." A rival paper put it in more succinct, if perhaps exaggerated, terms: "His own party leaders treat him with the same fondness they would an enraged tiger."
The state Senate minority leader threatened to resign because of Leopold and accused him of breaking agreements and ignoring the party's interests for his own.
But Leopold has rarely depended on the political establishment. He uses campaign funds sparingly and draws in part from an inheritance his grandfather left him from running a hosiery factory. Leopold invested the money in stocks in the 1960s.
He also acts as a one-man campaign team, adept at one-on-one interactions with voters.
"He was always on the move shaking hands, from island to island, mall to mall," said Virginia Isbell, his running mate in the 1978 governor's race.
But Leopold's bid was a risky gamble that depended on the incumbent governor losing the Democratic primary -- a gamble he lost. After losing a subsequent race for his old state Senate seat, he served briefly as a delegate to the 1980 national GOP convention.
Then, as Isbell put it, "he just kind of disappeared."
He emerged two years later in Anne Arundel. He moved to be closer to Washington, he said, where he was serving on an education advisory panel appointed by President Gerald R. Ford.
To the amazement of some, he ran that year for a House seat in District 31, which no Republican had won before. But Leopold did and, except for a 1990 bid for state Senate, kept on winning for the next two decades.
In his recent three-year campaign for county executive, Leopold said he knocked on roughly 17,000 doors. Demonstrating his approach in his living room, he calls it an art -- creating a rapport during that brief window when a door opens and a resident looks you up and down.
When he stands along roads with his trademark wooden sign, he peers through windshields to meet drivers' eyes. There is, he said, something almost sacrosanct with each connection made.
Although the one-man campaign has won him voters, it has turned some colleagues against him. Fellow legislators have accused him of taking credit for their work -- from bills on crab pots to capital projects. Others say he takes stances only to further his ambitions. He was for abortion rights in Hawaii, then against them in Maryland. (Leopold said he hadn't formed his view on abortion until he arrived in Maryland.)
In the past election, all five former county executives, including three Republicans, lined up against him, endorsing his opponent.
"He only pushes for himself, works for himself," said former delegate W. Ray Huff (D), who shared a State House office with Leopold. "His election was the biggest mistake the voters have made in their lives."
"He's very untrustworthy, and he is the consummate opportunist," then-County Executive O. James Lighthizer (D) said in the late 1980s when Leopold was a state delegate. "He will do anything to get his name in the newspaper, and I want to stress the word anything. In another life he was selling snake oil."
Leopold dismisses the criticism as "the plaintive cry of other threatened politicians" who attack him for his independence. He operates outside the reach of their old-boy network, he said, and stands in the way of their ambitions.
He said he has never taken credit for others' work and offers legislation he has passed on radium tests for wells and math and science scholarships as examples of his accomplishments. He believes he is in good standing among Republicans and points as proof to a 2000 plaque in his home from the National Republican Legislators Association naming him legislator of the year.
As for being self-promoting and opportunistic, he said, "That's practically the job definition of any politician worth their salt. You can't hide your light under a bushel in this line of work."
He calls his independence his strength because it means he is not beholden to moneyed interests. During his campaign, he alleged "that every single county executive, in one way or another, has been in the pockets of the developers." Two top priorities, he said, are trimming finances and managing growth in a county with a population of about 511,000.
Leopold has already moved to quiet at least one of his detractors' criticisms: lack of managerial experience. He appointed as his chief of staff former Annapolis mayor Dennis Callahan, a Democrat who has run the county Recreation and Parks Department in recent years.
"He will help balance John's policy-driven style as a legislator," said O. Tyson Bennett, co-chairman of Leopold's transition team.
Leopold acknowledges that he might have to make personal changes.
With his new job, he said, he no longer has time to write cards for every wedding and Eagle Scout, to knock on doors every week or stand on roadsides searching through windshields for eyes and connections.
"It's time to govern," he said.