Martin Aragona's political world is populated by scalawags, carpetbaggers, Hoganites, Gullettites, fat ladies, machine sympathizers. Leon Spinks, Rocky Marciano, guerrillas and white buffaloes. He must also contend with bags of worms, hanky-panky, quagmires, wolves and foggy pits.
For those unfamiliar with Aragona's ability to invent, mix and deliver metaphors, the political world of which he speaks is Prince George' County, where he is a Republican candidate for county executive.
For those unfamilar with Aragona at all, he is the 42-year-old son of an Italian immigrant, born in Flatbush, raised on Long Island, a house builder by trade, a millionaire by his own accout, a maverick in the eyes of the Republican establishment, and the underdog in the GPO primary race against former congressman Lawrence J. Hogan.
Some county Republicans expected or hoped that Aragona would abandon his county executive campaign once the better-known Hogan entered the race. Hogan, himself, called Aragona on the morning of his June 25 announcement and asked him to drop out. But the wealthy Oxon Hill developer-attorney put such thoughts to rest in his own inimitable fashion.
"I told him (Hogan) that Rocky Marciano beat Joe Louis and Leon Spinks beat Muhammad Ali," Aragona recalled during a recent interview at his Branch Avenue capaign office. "Needless to say, we're in this till the fat lady sings. You can't get to the World Series until you win the pennant, and we plan to win the pennant."
It might be assumed that someone who mentions boxing, baseball and basketball (the fat lady was made famous by Washington Bullet coach Dick Motta) in one political remark is not thinking before he speaks. But Aragona carefully prepares these colorful, if confusing, metaphors. His press releases are loaded with them. And, during a private interview, Aragona often leafed through a white tablet full of notes and quotations, searching for the one that fit the question.
Aragona's message is actually much sharper than his verbiage. He maintains that there is little difference between Hogan and Winfield M. Kelly Jr., the incumbent Democrat. Hogan and Kelly have the same friends, he claims, the same "palsy-walsy" relationship with a handful of influential business leaders in the county.
As evidence, Aragona offers the cases of Raymond G. LaPlaca, Charles A. Dukes and Gerard F. Holcomb, three Republican businessmen whom Aragona calls "machine sympathizers, scalawags and carpetbaggers."
LaPlaca, a mass mailing executive, ran for county commissioner in 1970 on Hogan's slate. In 1974, when Hogan was fighting with then-incumbent county executive William Gullett, LaPlaca organized a group called "Republicans for Kelly." Subsequently, Kelly appointed LaPlaca to the county planning board. Today, LaPlaca is close to both Kelly and Hogan.
Dukes, an attorney and board member of John Hanson Savings and Loan, is a former Democrat who worked with Democratic Party leader Peter O'Malley in the 1966 gubernatorial campaign. Hogan was instrumental in coverting Dukes to the Republican Party. He ran the Hogan slate's 1970 campaign and was Hogan's choice for county executive in 1971. Kelly appointed Dukes to the county personnel board. This year, Dukes was a fund-raiser for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steny Hoyer, O'Malley's best friend.
Holcomb, a top official at John Hanson Savings and Loan (whose Forestville office building houses Hogan's law firm, was appointed to the county liquor board in 1968 at the request of the ruling Democratic organization. In 1968, he ran for county commissioner on Hogan's slate. This year, he contributed to Hoyer's ill-fated gubernatorial campaign.
"Mr. Hogan and his friends are clearly not an alternative," Aragona said, his words spitting out in machine-gun fashion, his eyes now and then rolling up toward the ceiling. "Unlike Mr. Hogan and his friends, Mr. Kelly and Mr. O'Malley are not my good friends. Mr. Kelly has been taking good care of Mr. Hogan and his friends. (The jobs pay per diem expenses). I'm not going to take any hanky-panky like that.
"Mr. Hogan said recently that the county Republicans in the 1950s used to live off the crumbs of the Democratic banquet table. Well, what is all this for his friends? These aren't crumbs - these are loaves of bread."
At this point in the interview, Aragona paged through his notes again and borrowed a phrase from Sen. Barry Goldwater. "The people of Prince George's County deserve a choice, not an echo. I am the only choice."
Although Hogan refuses to respond to such criticism and privately regards Aragona as a lightweight who has no chance of beating him, some political observers in Prince George's believe that Aragona has enough things going for him to make his race credible and the possibility of an upset real.
Aragona's most obvious asset is his money. He estimates his worth at more than $1 million, much of it based in the hundreds of homes he has built over the last five years in Jacksonville, N.C., a military town near Camp Lejune. This easy access to money (candidates are allowed to spend as much as they desire on their own capaigns) has made it possible for Aragona to hire a high-powered public relations firm, Goodman & Associates of Baltimore, to pump $30,000 into his own campaign, and to advertise early on television and radio.
Another factor in Aragona's favor is that he is not a complete political unknown. As an at-large candidate for the County Council in 1974, he pulled in more votes than any other Republican, finishing only a few thousand votes short of the lowest Democratic vote-getter in a county where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 3 to 1 margin. He has been active in county politics since 1969, serving most recently as president of the Southern Prince George's Republican Club.
The Aragona name has also been promoted by his brother, Xavier, a former Democratic member of the Maryland House of Delegates. Xavier Aragona is still a Democrat, but is supporting Martin for county executive. "What else can a brother do?" he says.
Aragona and his advisers are also encouraged by their belief that Hogan, despite his high name recognition and popularity, has made several mistakes during his career that they can turn to Aragona's advantage. These mistakes have to do with Richard Nixon, Tongsun Park and Louise Gore.
As a congressman in 1974, Hogan was the first Republican on the House Judiciary Committee to call for Richard Nixon's impeachment. Hogan says it was a difficult decision, based on convincing evidence, and that it cost him the 1974 Republican gubernatorial nomination. Aragona says it was an opportunistic decision, motivated by Hogan's desire to gain publicity for his statewide race, and that it will cost Hogan votes again this year.
As a congressman in 1970, Hogan's campaign committee received a $300 contribution form Tongsun Park, the South Korean rice dealer who is the central figure in a congressional bribery investigation. Hogan says that he was not aware of the contribution until 1976 and that Park never talked to him about legistation concerning South Korea. Aragona, who had a copy of the House Korea hearings placed on the table in front of him during an interview said: "The voters are fed up with Watergates. Mandelgates and should not have to tolerate Mr. Hogan explaining away his involvement in Koreagate."
In his 1974 race for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, Hogan was so confident of victory taht he virtually ignore his opponent, Louise Gore, through most of the campaign. Gore beat him, carrying all but two counties and Aragona believes that Hogan's overconfidence will again hurt the former congressman in the county executive race.