Former Anne Arundel County Executive Joseph W. Alton Jr. announced yesterday that he reluctantly is giving up plans to run for his old job and attempt a political comeback after serving a prison sentence three years ago for his conviction on political corruption charges.
Alton said personal financial burdens - not fear of a voter backlash against his conviction - prevented him from again running. This decision caught many by surprise because just 10 days ago he changed his Republican Party registration to independent, a sign that he wanted to enter the race but avoid a stiff primary fight.
"I cannot ignore the realities of my present financial situation," Alton said at a press conference he called. He said he was under financial pressure because of three large bank loans he recently received to cover family and business obligations.
"I will not run for county executive and I can only say to those who have urged me to do so that this decision will always be a hard one to live with," Alton said at the briefing outside of Annapolis.
"If I had no one to consider but myself, I would go ahead even if I knew it meant bankruptcy," continued Alton, who recently began work as a builder.
Alton's possible candidacy for the county's top executive job would have been the first attempt by one of Maryland's long line of convicted political figures to test public reaction to such legal troubles.
His plans were taken seriously by Anne Arundel's political leaders of both parties who feared that the once popular and powerful Alton would cause national embarrassment for the county if he won.
The race for county executive remains murky in Anne Arundel because current Executive Robert A. Pascal, a Republican, is considering running for governor. Alton's decision gives Pascal more breathing room, some political insiders say, since Pascal was not anxious to risk his political future in a race against Alton. Pascal denied that his plans were affected by Alton's decision.
Alton, 59, a tall, sad-eyed man who built a strong following in part by holding the line on property taxes, appeared pale and drawn as he read from a prepared text and fielded questions at his new conference.
While predicting that his opposition probably would "concentrate on besmirching my character," he said fear of a dirty race was "only a minor consideration" in his decision to forego this fall's election.
"I want to tell the people of Anne Arundel County who do not know me personally that I was never able in my life to ask anyone for anything, much less extrot it from them," he said.
"I am not analogist," he added. I went to jail rather than assume that role. I belong to that large percentage of imperfect people. I'm not at all ashamed of what I've done."
After a negotiated agreement with U.S. prosecutors, Alton pleaded guilty in December 1974 to extorting kickbacks from architects and engineers who were seeking business with his county. He served seven months of an 18-th sentence in federal prison.
He long has held that he merely violated a legal technicality because he never enriched himself or abused the public trust. At the time of his sentencing, he said he used the cash to finance political campaigns "in the traditional Maryland way."
Alton's guilty plea and his acceptance of a prison sentence while other convicted Maryland politicians protested their innocence typified his maverick style in a 25-year public career as Anne Arundel sheriff, state senator and the first county executive.
"Joe doesn't have any regrets," said Kathy Marx, a longtime friend and media consultant to Alton. "He hasn't been humiliated (by his conviction). I don't think he feels he has to justify anything. That's what gives him class."