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  •   Gary Gives Orders and Takes Names

    John Gary goes to work in his office
    John Gary goes to work in his office. (Craig Herndon/The Post)
    By Peter S. Goodman
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, July 30, 1998; Page A01

    A frown forms on Anne Arundel County Executive John G. Gary's face, a long, jowly sort of frown that seems the inverse of his hairline, which rises to a silver pompadour. At least five minutes of his morning Cabinet meeting have slipped by with other people doing the talking.

    They're talking about the health department -- his health department. The newspapers are filled with stories that a private company hired to ferry poor patients to medical appointments is generating complaints. Drivers are often showing up late.

    "Let me caution you not to overreact," Gary tells his health officer, Frances B. Phillips. His tone does not invite disagreement. "My God, you call a cab in the private sector and you might have to wait a half-hour. What's unreasonable about that? These people expect as soon as they're done with the doctor, the car's going to be sitting there waiting for them?

    "This is a service that we're offering, for Pete's sake. It's a free service. . . . We've got 3,500 employees, and you're going to have a few of them who are not going to be ambassadors."

    It is not the first time this morning that Gary has vented frustrations with those who, in his view, don't understand government -- citizens who expect too much, reporters eager to pounce, "wackos" and "imbeciles" and "morons."

    With much the same fervor with which Douglas M. Duncan presides over Montgomery County and Wayne K. Curry rules over neighboring Prince George's, the former drapery business owner governs Anne Arundel as if he owns the place. Bluntness is his credo. Orders are his favored means of execution. It is a style befitting a big-city mayor.

    Like Democrats Duncan and Curry and C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger in Baltimore County, Gary, a Republican, took office in 1994. He was fresh from a dozen unspectacular years in the Maryland General Assembly, but it was a good year for politicians of his creed. In a period characterized by public impatience and disgust with the traditional, deliberative ways of government, they all claimed mandates to reign free of demands for sensitivity and tact.

    They did not offer themselves to voters as diplomats, and they would not be boxed in by expectations they would act the role. Indeed, not unlike his peers, Gary's mode of operation has gained him a reputation in some quarters as a bully, a figure more concerned with getting his way than respecting the democratic process. Some call him "King John," and they do not mean it as a compliment.

    For Gary, 54, it is both an irritant and a badge of pride. If he is riding herd, he figures, then he is also getting a good deal for the taxpayer.

    To spend a day by Gary's side is to see his trademark style applied to an unending assortment of issues demanding his attention. It offers a window onto the civic priorities that confront area county executives as they struggle to deliver services to hundreds of thousands of people and navigate conflicts over development, school funding and public safety, all the while keeping a watchful eye on the press.

    Still, the view is not just on government but an outsized politician: John G. Gary.

    11 a.m. As the Cabinet meeting ends, the pavement of the parking lot burns with July heat. Gary eases into his blue Mercury sedan and drives himself from the Heritage Office Complex to the Arundel Center, a brick office building in Annapolis. He rides the elevator to the fourth floor, crosses through a glass door controlled by a security switch, then past two protective assistants and into his office.

    On his office wall -- amid photos of Gary with governors and Gary with relatives -- hangs a framed cartoon showing Gary seated across a table from a union negotiator. "I think we can compromise on the salary issue, you whining overpaid slacker," Gary is saying. "I'm sure we can, you callous dictatorial cheapskate," the union man replies.

    Gary briefly confers with his spokeswoman, Lisa Ritter. She needs an update on Baldwin's Choice, a proposed development on the Shadyside peninsula, which is opposed by a vocal band of anti-growth activists. They loathe the county executive and, like many of Gary's detractors, regularly accuse him of cozying up to developers.

    But now they are hoping they can win his favor. They want the county to buy the development from Washington real estate magnate Dominic V. Antonelli, who has let it be known he'll sell for the right price. They want him to transform a site for 150 homes into a waterfront park.

    Ritter, a high-energy woman whose pager seems always to be beeping, wants to know what to tell the reporters when they call.

    "It certainly looks like we may purchase it," Gary tells her. "Even if we put $3 million into it, that's a good purchase for the county."

    But most of the money has to come from the state, and the governor won't commit. And there have to be ball fields, Gary insists. "I'm not going to put money in there just to have the birds and bees."

    Gary sifts through his mail. He is looking for a response from school district officials to his latest volley in the war over education funding. School officials have cut programs, accusing Gary of forcing their hand by underfunding them in the recently adopted county budget. Now they want him to hand over nearly $6 million in supplemental funds.

    But Gary contends that school officials have padded the bureaucracy at the expense of more teachers and textbooks. In a letter sent a week earlier, he told them he wouldn't move on their request for more money without details about how they plan to spend it. He demanded a response by the day before, but none came. None this day, either.

    "I'm telling you," he fumes, "I am so sick of them ignoring our letters."

    12:40 p.m. Two parent activists are on their way to discuss school funding with Gary, but first there is lunch. A 20-minute hole. "That gives you soup and sandwich from the grease pit downstairs," Ritter says. Bologna on white bread. Coleslaw in plastic containers. Gary opts for a pizzeria a block away. When he returns, Cynthia Johnston and Michiel DeVito are waiting. They sit down at his conference table in flowery dresses. They unfold papers.

    Gary leans back and puts his meaty hands on his head. "What can we do for you?"

    Johnston speaks evenly. She is worried about the programs the school district has eliminated. Special classes for gifted children are gone. So are buses for extracurricular activities. School is only weeks away.

    "I hate to say it, but it's time that you parents started really raising some hell," Gary tells them. "It's a phony issue. They have no shortfall."

    The whole thing is a setup, he says. School officials gave him a much bigger wish list than he could fill so he would look bad. Now they are making unnecessary cuts to make him look worse. It's an election year.

    "These folks are playing politics with your children," he says. "It's absolutely outrageous."

    For more than two hours, sarcasm and invective flow. Gary singles out a recent "crazy Washington Post story" which reported that Anne Arundel spends far less than most counties on school administration. "What am I, in a race to see how much I can spend on administration?"

    Johnston tries to interject. "Regardless of who did what to whom, this is a very real problem."

    "Cindy, you can't be asking me to give these people another $9 million to waste," Gary says. "You need to go to them and demand that they show you what they have done with their money."

    Gary tells his secretary to make copies of several charts and letters. He says they clearly establish that the school board is squandering money. He reads off a list of the board's initial requests. " 'Nonprofessional hall duty,' " he scoffs. "First thing I asked them, 'What the hell is that?' Basically, they want to hire guards."

    "You all should be demanding their resignations," Gary says. "We may drive some things down their throat yet."

    If nothing else, the two women are impressed by the county executive's fervor.

    "I can understand how this is frustrating for you," Johnston says. It is the voice of a mother.

    "Okay?" Gary says.

    The woman are assembling their papers to leave. "I've given you enough documents to kill a cow."

    3:15 p.m. Gary's carpeted office is quietly cool as the sun pounds mercilessly on the nearly abandoned streets below. The county executive is seated across from County Attorney Phillip F. Scheibe, who is tan, lean and wrapped in a charcoal double-breasted suit.

    Scheibe runs the county law office, which advises county departments, defends the county against lawsuits and sometimes drafts legislation. Today, he's waiting for orders from his commander in chief.

    A company is intent on building an assisted-living facility on the northern edges of Annapolis. The neighbors don't want it, Gary doesn't see the need for it and he has decided to champion their cause. But the Maryland Health Resource Planning Commission has signed off on the project and the company is demanding its county permits.

    Gary wants to sue the state commission. He tells Scheibe that it had no business approving the project without more public hearings.

    "If we've got any chance at all, I'd like to file a suit," he tells Scheibe. "It would certainly scare the bejesus out of them."

    The attorney rubs his palms together and leans forward. "I'll look into it for you, John."

    Now Ritter is standing in the doorway. The Baltimore Sun has gotten wind of a letter Scheibe sent to the police chief, Larry W. Tolliver, about court rulings limiting when cars may be seized in drug busts. The letter is weeks old, but the patrol officers have yet to hear the news from their chief.

    Gary is livid. "How in the hell does this stuff leak out?"

    "I can tell you it didn't leak out of my office," Scheibe says.

    But Gary says the decision is good news. Only drug dealers will lose their vehicles now, not high school kids caught driving Daddy's Lincoln with a minor stash of marijuana. He figures the police chief can use a little reining in.

    "You hate to buck the morale of the police force, but it's the same damn thing he was doing on that damn seat-belt law. The police were pulling everybody over for that. I mean, everybody. I said, 'Larry, why are we doing that?' He says, 'We're participating in a national campaign.' . . . By that time, he had already pissed off half the damn public."

    4:30 p.m. A trio of officials from Anne Arundel Community College is ushered into Gary's office. Bags have formed under the county executive's eyes. Rumples have appeared in his once perfectly pressed white shirt. His voice sounds tired, but it does not stop.

    For business-minded types like Gary, college is much more than research and big ideas: It's an engine for economic development.

    Gary is intent on seeing the college form a technology partnership with an entrepreneur named Chris McCleary, whose company, USinternetworking Inc., has plans to employ 1,000 people. This is the second time McCleary's name has come up today. Gary touted him at the morning Cabinet meeting, portraying him as the sort of figure who can help realize Gary's vision for greater commercial development throughout this once rural peninsula. Gary sees a bigger tax base, smokestacks turning into software.

    "We can't let this guy get away," he tells college President Martha A. Smith. "I told him, 'You could meet this good-looking blonde who runs the community college.' "

    Smith smiles pleasantly. "Well, I'm going to meet him for sure now," she says.

    "I don't understand exactly what. . . he does, to tell you the truth," Gary says. "All I understand is he's one hell of a gung-ho, dynamic guy."

    The conversation shifts to a proposed program to train high school teachers in computers and navigating the Internet. Gary likes the idea but does not know how much he's willing to spend to finance it. "I don't have any number in my head, but I'm open to it," Gary says.

    Then Gary rambles on about fireworks and local orchestras. He extols the bountiful merits of Anne Arundel County. The college officials ooze assent.

    They saunter out just before 6 p.m. as late sunshine drifts sideways into Gary's office.

    Now the county executive has an hour to himself before he sets off to Severna Park for a talk about drug initiatives. He opens a can of soda and rubs his face with a handkerchief. He picks up a copy of the afternoon Annapolis Capital, and he scans the headlines. Then he settles into an upholstered chair.

    An assistant ducks her head in the door. Someone wants help preserving a historic property. They want a few minutes with the county executive.

    Gary nods, then he flashes an enormous grin. He leans back and puts his hands on his gut.

    "Where do you go when you need help?" he asks. "You come to Big John."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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