He is always stuck with the same stereotype, says Rockville Mayor John Freeland: conservative, business-oriented, military and Republican.
"But, you know," he says, blue eyes blinking, "basically, they're right. That's what I am."
Col. John Richard Freeland, the city's new mayor and the only active-duty Air Force officer who is also an elected official, likes to make it clear very early on that he knows who he is and what he wants.
A four-term City Council member before his rise to the mayor's job, the 49-year-old Freeland exudes control.
"I don't like any false sense of security," he says, speaking in the sparsely decorated office he has occupied since April 27, one day after his election in an uncontested race. "People can either trust me for what I am, or then I don't want to be an elected official.
"I want people to come up to me in the grocery store and say, 'Hey, John, doing a great job,' " he says, punching the air. "Or, 'Hey, John where's your head? Why did you do such a stupid thing?' "
On this day Freeland, a short man with soft, silver hair, is wearing his well-pressed military uniform: light blue, short-sleeved shirt and navy slacks. He usually wears civilian clothes when on city business, but he's in a rush. He first checked in at Andrews Air Force Base, where he oversees reserve affairs and is in charge of more than 1,000 men. Then on to an appointment at city hall, then to a meeting with municipal officials from around the state.
It's all in a day's work for Freeland, who uses terms such as "programmatic," "good management," and "balanced accounts" to describe how government should work. A former sales executive who returned to the Air Force full time four years ago, he radiates a calm, quiet forcefulness.
Freeland also manages to do what many people cannot: turn what might seem a negative into a positive:
* On following his friend William Hanna, the enormously popular mayor who headed Rockville when it was twice named All-American City and the man Freeland says probably will become the father-in-law of his youngest son: "I think a lot of people are looking forward to a new mayor in the city for a change of style. . . . I think I will be a more energetic and accessible mayor. People have told me on repeated occasions that they feel comfortable talking to me and sitting with me. Bill was like a white knight riding in on a white charger on crusades sometimes. I'm not like that. I am more objective."
* On being a military man: "Most people are very comfortable with my military background. In fact, I think they have a certain degree of confidence in me that they might not otherwise have. The military ranking gives them more or less of a measure on me--they know that to have become a full colonel in the Air Force I didn't get there by good luck, political connections or family money. They know I got there by way of talent."
* On being a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic county: "First, I think it's wrong to assume Rockville is as liberal as the rest of the county. . . . I've been a Republican all my life, mainly because it was an easy way to explain some of my actions. When someone would say, 'Hey, how can you say that?' I'd say, 'Hey, I'm a Republican.' "
Although Freeland's military background is unusual in the political world, the route he took to enter city politics was anything but uncommon. He started as president of the local PTA in 1967, and campaigned for the paving of a street bordering the school. Then he moved on to become president of the local homeowners association and a leader of property assessment protests. Next came the position of campaign manager for Independents for Rockville candidates. In 1974, he was a first-time candidate for the City Council, and was elected.
"I guess the bottom line of why I finally got into politics could be compared to a commercial that ran around then. There was this daughter whose mother was trying to help her with the instructions on an aspirin bottle. The daughter, exasperated, turned to her mother and said, 'Mother, I'd rather do it myself!' ".
Since then, Freeland has been doing it his own way. During his last term in office, the mayor and all four City Council members were members of the nonpartisan Independents for Rockville, but increasingly the group was split three to two, with Hanna leading one faction and Freeland and Steve Abrams voting on the other side.
On one crucial issue--the development of the $85 million Town Center and the redevelopment of the nearly vacant Rockville Mall--Hanna wanted to go ahead with signing an agreement with Winmar Company and Nordal Associates, prospective developers of the center, without adding a contingency clause about the mall. Freeland balked at that idea, and after many conferences with the parties, he helped draft a plan that satisfied all sides: The builders agreed to investigate linking the development of the center to the mall, but were not obligated to do so if studies found the coupling would not be economical.
It's this sort of business deal Freeland is most proud of, and where he probably departs most noticeably from his predecessor. Hanna delighted in a good business deal for the city, but also advocated investing large sums in arts and recreation programs and aid to low-income residents. One of Hanna's programs, a special one-time fund for people in need, is budgeted for an additional $25,000 for next year. But after that, Freeland says, he will oppose any further funds.
"There is a tendency for elected officials to be do-gooder types who are not willing to show self-restraint when it comes to good management judgments. They become like benevolent dictators," explains Freeland. "They think government can solve all the ills instead of looking to human compassion. When I was a child, if a family had a problem it would be the church or the synagogue or friends who would be there to help."
City government, says Freeland, should be run as a business.
"We follow good management practices in the Air Force. I followed good management practices when I was with Bendix (his former employer). My family uses good management practices for our home budgeting. So, it seems to me, if it's good enough for the Air Force and good enough for my business and my family, then it certainly should be good enough for the City of Rockville," says Freeland.
"As an elected official I have to look at what the community is willing to pay," he continues. "I think because of Bill's (Hanna) emotional sensitivity he was more willing to take the initiative and fund some things whether the community wanted them or not.
"I think I will show more reserve, I don't have the same emotional attachment."
Although he is a lifelong Republican who strongly supports President Reagan's economic program, Freeland is not always predictable in his political endorsements. He says he plans to support a number of Democrats, including County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist, unless the Republicans come up with what he considers a better candidate. He does not intend to support Republican Luiz Simmons for county executive. In the last election, he supported Democratic Rep. Michael Barnes.
In School Board elections, Freeland says, he will be looking for "even more conservative" candidates. The present board's shift to the right, Freeland says, "hasn't been good enough or strong enough." And as for complaints that some of the recent school closings may have been motivated by racial considerations, Freeland says he "finds it hard to believe they are guilty of that sort of thing."
He has not yet endorsed any candidates but says, "I certainly am not going to be one nickel's worth of bashful. I'm going to be very, very vocal and very, very visible."