With characteristic disregard for convention, former Anne Arundel County Executive Joseph W. Alton Jr. is seriously considering running for the post he left three years ago after pleading guilty to corruption charges.
Alton's plans for a political comeback 32 months after his release from federal prison is the first attempt by one of Maryland's numerous convicted politicians to test public reaction to such legal troubles.
His possible candidacy for the county's top office is taken seriously by Anne Arundel politicians of both parties who are searching for a strong candidate it current Executive Robert A. Pascal seeks the Republican nomination for governor.
Alton, a tall sad-eyed man, was elected Anne Arundel's first executive in 1964 and quickly built a strong following inpart by holding the line on property taxes. At the time of his conviction, he was the county's most powerful political figure.
While many other convicted political figures have smoldered in resentment and acted like broken men, Alton has been traveling around his suburban county like an elder statesman.
He makes frequent stops at local political functions, discussing property taxes recreation sites and his possible return to politics. Sunday, about 80 residents of his old stronghold in north Anne Arundel attended a party in his honor. Alton said he would probably enter the race."I'm already pretty far down the road."
"I see a groundswell of support for him" said County State's Attorney Warren B. Duckett Jr., who opposes an Alton candidacy. "He's a very charismatic man who's served the county well in the past and people remember him for low property taxes."
Duckett contended, however, that reelecting Alton would subject the county "to an incredible amount of abuse and ridicule. Just the idea of putting a convicted felon back into office is ludicrous. If would be terribly embarassing."
Alton is the last one to shrink from his criminal past. He boldly admits to violating what he calls a legal technicality - for which he served seven months of an 18-month prison term - but claims he never enriched himself or abused the public trust, after a negotiated agreement with federal prosecutors in Baltimore, Alton pleaded guilty to extorting money from architects and engineers seeking business from the county.
"I have no apologies to make," the former Republican executive said in an interview. "I have not sense of guilt or feel I did anything against the people. I don't want to waste my time defending myself. I went to prison rather than doing that."
Far from feeling remorse, Alton said, "The only reason I wouldn't do it again was because of the danger of being caught . . . I didn't break any law that affronts my conscience."
At the time of his sentencing, he said he did not use any of the money for himself. Instead, the cash was used to finance political campaigns in the traditional Maryland way. And that's not very serious."
Alton's public confession and Willingness to accept a prison term contrasted with the behavior of other Maryland officeholders who were convicted of political corruption. Most have ioudly protested innocence, and charged that they were the victim of "frame-up."
"I'm not a political masochist," Alton said, in explaining his stylr. "But I'm not a slave to conventions either. I've always been more or less an individualist and that's the way I guess I grew up in politics."
Alton's most overt political act thus far was a mass mailing to test his popularity. He sent letters to each of the county's 110 voting precincts asking nine voters whether he should run for another term as county executive.
Alton, a lifelong Republican, said he will probably register as an independent to avoid a costly primary fight. Pascal, also a Republican, announced plans to seek reelection instead of running for governor, but has since been wavering on that decision.
County political observers say Pascal is the only candidate with enough support to head off Alton for the executive's job, the top administrative post in the county with control over spending, appointments and programs.
Other possible candidates include Republican State Sen. John A. Cade and county Urban Renewal Director H. Erle Schafer, a Democrat. Pascal is said to have encouraged both to run if he leaves office.
Alton said he believes county voters are more concerned with rising property taxes under Pascal's administration than his conviction and prison term. But, he added, he does not plan to shrink from questions about his integrity.
"I'm sure I'll go through a crucifixion before the campaigns over," Alton, 59, said. "What I did was a violation of the law and I paid for what I did in court. It was part of my life and I don't have any regrets. I'm proud of my public career."