Rehrmann's Effort Echoes Glendening's
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 8, 1998; Page C01
BEL AIR, Md.From the new distribution centers that now fill once-pristine farmland throughout Harford County, 18-wheel trucks ferry shiny new cars, cooking spices and cleaning materials to stores up and down the East Coast.
The new warehouses and workers they have attracted are the most visible trophies of an economic revival that has buoyed Harford and turned its political leader, County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann (D), into a would-be governor.
Little known outside her home base -- but with a big boost by Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's recent endorsement -- Rehrmann is waging an upstart campaign for Maryland's highest office. She is running on her pro-business, fiscally conservative record of managing this mid-size suburban jurisdiction that straddles Interstate 95 north of Baltimore.
It's a message state voters have heard before. Four years ago, the man she is trying to oust from the State House -- Parris N. Glendening -- campaigned on his efforts in Prince George's County as he made the successful leap from county executive to governor.
Indeed, in some respects, Rehrmann offers voters another version of Glendening's cautious, almost dull, managerial competence. Not known for dramatic gestures, the 53-year-old grandmother has devoted her eight years as county executive to the bread and butter issues of local governance: keeping taxes and expenses down; cutting red tape for businesses; investing in the necessary infrastructure to keep up with growth.
"If I believe in something, I roll up my sleeves and get it done," said Rehrmann, a moderate Democrat in a county increasingly dominated by Republicans.
Rehrmann, a former schoolteacher, has held elected office since 1979, when she won a seat on the Bel Air Town Commission. In 1982, she was elected to the House of Delegates, where she stayed until she narrowly defeated former Bel Air Mayor Geoffrey R. Close for county executive in 1990.
By many accounts, she has had a successful tenure as county executive. While she has alienated some employees with her occasionally brusque approach -- she's known to send black roses to those who displease her -- many elected officials, business executives and community activists say that Rehrmann has performed well in leading the county out of the recession of the early '90s and managing the growth Harford has enjoyed in the years since.
In her early years, Rehrmann cut spending, refused employee raises and created a 5 percent reserve fund to keep the county in the black. As the economy recovered, she has aggressively wooed many large national firms to Harford, offering tax incentives, job-training assistance and state subsidies. Among the firms that have set up new facilities in Harford in recent years are Gap Inc., Clorox and spice giant McCormick.
Still, there is no shortage of critics who question whether Rehrmann deserves a promotion to the state's top job, citing what they say is a rather routine managerial record shorn of any grand vision.
Some economic development officials say she is merely reaping the benefits of a roaring national economy and Harford's enviable location along I-95. Neighborhood activists gripe about growth policies that they say have helped clog the once empty roads and open fields of Harford. And others say that Rehrmann's claims to be a tight-fisted fiscal manager are marred by the dramatic growth in long-term debt to pay for capital improvement projects.
"She's had good times in which to operate," said state Del. James M. Harkins (R-Harford), who is supporting Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey's bid for governor. "When you've got plenty of money, it's not as big a challenge as in the downturn. I wouldn't say she's done anything exceptional."
By city standards, Harford County continues to be a mostly rural outpost, with rolling hills and farms surrounding dense development along the I-95 and Route 24 corridors. It may be best known in Maryland as the boyhood home of Baltimore Orioles baseball star Cal Ripken Jr., who grew up in Aberdeen.
To those with deep roots -- some stretching back generations -- there is the common suburban refrain: Too many new people. Too many new houses. Too many cars.
Harford's population has jumped 35 percent, to 220,000, since 1988, attracting Baltimore County and Baltimore City residents seeking less expensive housing and a break from city living. Its new residents have tended to be Republicans, significantly reducing the 2 to 1 edge Democrats held over Republicans as late as 1986. Republicans hold all seven County Council seats.
Strip shopping malls and dozens of restaurants have popped up to serve this new population, leaving natives such as retired teacher Nathan W. Moore, 54, to deal with long waits in stand-still traffic and public schools that are bursting at the seams.
"You can't smell the honeysuckle anymore, and you can't see the cows like you used to," said Moore, president of the Wakefield Meadows Improvement Association, just outside Bel Air. "Some people are asking themselves: 'Is this what I came to Harford County for . . . to wait in traffic and have my kids go to school in portable classrooms?' "
Rehrmann, who moved to Harford in the late 1960s, has adhered to Harford's long-standing policy of directing growth into the county's "development envelope" along major thoroughfares. But although she has set aside land for preservation, Rehrmann has gained few friends among those who think Harford is growing too fast.
Some say the breaking point was a decision Rehrmann made two days into her first term. At the time, she was told that the county's water supply was dangerously low, and the county's ability to process sewage was not keeping pace with new development. Her predecessor, Habern Freeman, did not believe in borrowing to pay for such items, so the problems had mounted for years.
"We were out of water," Rehrmann said. "We were out of sewer. Schools were at capacity."
As a fix, Rehrmann contracted for more water with Baltimore and embarked on the county's first comprehensive program to build schools, roads and sewer lines to accommodate Harford's growing population.
It was a costly initiative that many residents agree was necessary, although some think her decision opened the floodgates to development. Freeman said he controlled development by building just enough water and sewer facilities to keep slightly ahead of new growth. Rehrmann scoffs at the criticism.
"Thirty years ago, you had to go shopping in Baltimore County," she said. "Now, we've got shopping here, restaurants here and jobs here. I think that's a good thing."
Freeman said Rehrmann's habit of borrowing to pay for improvements shows that she isn't the fiscal conservative she claims to be.
Rehrmann acknowledged that debt has increased significantly. But even with the increased spending, Rehrmann's chief deputy, Larry W. Klimovitz, said the county's debt service accounts for less than 4 percent of Harford's budget and will be easily managed.
On the business front, Rehrmann has expanded the county's "fast-track" process to enable businesses to get their permits more quickly. She also has augmented state financing and loan programs, with Harford-only initiatives to make it easier for businesses with limited equity, capital and cash flow to get low-cost loans.
James T. Brady, former secretary of Business and Economic Development for Maryland, said Harford has proved appealing to business but stopped short of lavish praise for Rehrmann's efforts.
"A lot of distribution companies have found them an attractive place to locate," said Brady, who is considering his own gubernatorial campaign. "I think they've done a good job, but I wouldn't distinguish it wildly from other parts of the state."
One nearly universal theme among friends and foes is that Rehrmann is not to be crossed. Although she comes across as mild-mannered, Rehrmann does not shy away from a fight. She is quick to flash a cold stare -- and remember -- those who disagree with her.
"Some people are afraid of her sometimes," said Joanne S. Parrott, the Harford council president. "She can yell. She has a habit of sending black roses."
Even her campaign spokesman, George Harrison, a smile on his face, had this assessment: "She can look at you sometimes and make you think she's screaming."
It's a trick Rehrmann learned during a brief stint as a schoolteacher, trying to get unruly youngsters to stop misbehaving. "I learned that you stop what you're doing and look at your students, and misbehavior changes," Rehrmann said with a smile.
Some criticize such actions -- especially the roses -- as quirky behavior unbecoming of someone who wants to be governor. But Rehrmann makes no apologies. The black rose means someone "didn't do a good job," she said, noting that it is meant in jest.
"I expect everyone to do their job, and do it well," she said. "There's no doubt that I have an expectation for high performance. I'm not going to settle for mediocrity."
Annual operating budget: $307 million
Unemployment rate: 5.2 percent
Public schools: Rank 4th highest in state in standardized test scores
Median household income: $45,600
SOURCE: Harford County Government, Md. Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation
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