He gave the governor moose meat for his birthday. He publicly called environmentalists "Greenies" and told Anne Arundel County teachers to find new jobs if they wanted more pay.

He agreed to save a large farm from developers and turn it into a county park, but frightened the community leaders who demanded it: "We're announcing today," he jokingly told them, "we're going to subdivide Quiet Waters Farm to {make} 340 low-income houses."

These aren't the actions and comments most people expect from a government leader, but the people of Anne Arundel County have learned to expect them from County Executive James Lighthizer. His activities reveal a man who is probably closer to Gov. William Donald Schaefer than most local-level officials in the state, and who is cautious with the county's cash, anxious to control growth but wary of environmentalists as well as land developers.

They also show a sense of humor one doesn't expect from a man with his resume. Lighthizer, 41, is a former IBM salesman and general practice suburban lawyer from Crofton. He and his wife Gloria have five children. He is praised almost incessantly by the county's business, political and civic leaders as a skilled chief executive officer. One expects a solemn corporate manager but instead gets a man who arrives at the governor's birthday party with a package of moose meat.

"My humor is occasionally misinterpreted," Lighthizer said recently. "Which is understandable."

In his fifth year as the Democratic executive of a county of 400,000 people -- urban dwellers, farmers, Chesapeake Bay watermen, tony weekend sailors, affluent Annapolis residents, pockets of stable black communities, and one of the largest concentrations of mobile-home owners in the state -- Lighthizer is enjoying huge popularity.

The seven-member County Council continues to support all his major programs. He has implemented controversial development impact fees -- payments by developers for the costs of roads, schools and other services for the houses and offices they build -- with both developers and slow-growth organizations claiming victory. And he has survived several months of attacks by the county teachers union without yielding to its pay demands and without suffering any obvious political damage.

Despite his success, Lighthizer's political future is murky. He doesn't want to run for Congress, and challenges to Schaefer or popular Democratic U.S. Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes or Barbara A. Mikulski are unlikely.

There are a few pockets of dissent. The teachers are bitter over Lighthizer's refusal to grant them a larger pay raise and his attitude that if they didn't like it, they could leave. Some black residents feel that Lighthizer ignores their concerns.

Still, Lighthizer has a friend in Schaefer and has managed to maintain good terms with the somewhat volatile governor, Schaefer's aides said, because of Lighthizer's hands-on and regional approach to government, and his help during the gubernatorial campaign.

The key to Lighthizer's current success, according to several county leaders, is that he came to office with no great vision of what the county should become, and then asked as many people as he could what his agenda should be.

"The things that surfaced out of that gave him his agenda," recalled Marsha Perry, a state delegate from Crofton who served on the transition team. "It wasn't something that he had to sit around and have his own brain trust think of."

Lighthizer admits he's "not a great visionary," and took the job because he thought it would be fun and he would be better at it than most. "I just thought the job would be very appealing," he said. "I didn't have a grand design. I thought we could run it well and I thought I was better qualified than the other candidates."

Lighthizer still seeks government outsiders for advice and suggestions at almost every turn. Like many other county executives, he must struggle to balance the need to expand the county's tax base by attracting new businesses and housing, and the desire to protect undeveloped land, particularly around the Chesapeake Bay.

Lighthizer is also faced with the need to expand roads, sewers, schools and other services, without raising taxes and holding down wage demands of county employes.

Generally, by the time he goes to the County Council with a major proposal, said Robert Agee, his top aide, he has discussed and publicized his proposals so much that he knows he has support and nobody is taken by surprise.

"You don't run into machine-gun nests," Agee said. "That's Jim's approach. If there's a high probability of losing, you have to sit down and find another way."

Lighthizer is often gregarious among friends, and enjoys having a beer or hunting with fellow politicians. But sometimes he seems shy in crowds and with people he does not know well.

"He doesn't have a strong political presence," said Warren Duckett, the county prosecutor and one of its leading Democratic officials. "Jim Lighthizer just sort of comes into a room and there he is. People who recognize him go over and talk to him, but he doesn't have an overwhelming presence."

Politically, Lighthizer is attractive to business interests and often opposed to unions, and he speaks frequently of the need to run the county in a "fiscally prudent" manner. At the same time, he has devoted much of his attention to issues, such as the environment, which usually have been more associated with liberals.

In a county where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2 to 1, the distinction is often vague.

Before last November's election, the county Republican chairman said Lighthizer was doing "a pretty good job." In the end, Lighthizer's Republican opponent was a well-known Annapolis eccentric who attracted 15 percent of the vote.

"He's a good reader of political feeling," said County Council Chairman Virginia Clagett, a south-county Democrat. "He knows what's wanted and needed by the majority . . . . He doesn't do anything that's off the wall and unrelated to public wishes. And therefore opposition disintegrates, when it sees that."

In the last three years, Lighthizer has made the environment and controlling growth his priorities for the county that borders the Chesapeake Bay. Two years ago, he launched a 13-point "growth management program." The program included impact fees and an "adequate highways ordinance" that requires developers to prove their buildings will not add to traffic congestion, both of which have been implemented by the County Council, as well as a general down-zoning of land to reduce future growth, which is awaiting council action.

Residents still suffer in rush hour traffic to and from jobs in Baltimore, Washington, and other parts of the county, and often blame Lighthizer for it, said Charles St. Lawrence, president of the Greater Severna Park Federation of Civic Associations. But he said most serious growth problems occurred before Lighthizer came to office. "Jim Lighthizer has looked at the systems that apply to land development and improved them," he said.

"I'd probably give Lighthizer a B or a B-minus on the environment," said Dr. Clifford Andrews, president of the Severn River Association, one of the county's more active environmental groups. He credits Lighthizer with listening to environmentalists and increasing enforcement of environmental laws, but said he could do more. "If you stack him up with other county executives, he's clearly better," Andrews said. "I think he's doing a reasonable job, but I wish he did a little better job."

Lighthizer says he will never be able to control growth as much as many of his constituents want. "You have to recognize that land-use planning is at best an inexact science and at worst an art," he said. "You learn as you go along. And we have to respect that document called the U.S. Constitution, and this certainly does cramp one's style. At times it's frustrating."

"He has an ingenious way of taking people who are his strongest opponents on an issue and bringing them back in the fold," Duckett said. "When it's all over, he doesn't have many enemies."

Such is Lighthizer's reputation for administraton that friends advised Prince Georges' County State's Attorney Alex Williams to go to Lighthizer for a few tips after he took office last year. "Basically he told me you have to be tenacious," Williams recalled. "You have to make a decision -- not always the best political decision -- and live with it and justify it. You can't ride the fence all the time. I appreciated hearing that and I'm adopting that approach."

Lighthizer told Williams he needed to get to know the governor, too, and set up a dinner for the three of them. Williams said it was at this dinner that he arranged for Schaefer to attend a large reception in Prince George's -- an event heralded by many in Prince George's as a signal of Williams' political aspirations.

Lighthizer's own aspirations remain unclear. Candidates are lining up to take his job when his term ends three years from now, but there is no obvious place for Lighthizer to go. Historically, the political future of most county executives in Maryland has been one of almost total obscurity. Other county politicians say the two most likely alternatives are that he'll go into private business or be appointed to a cabinet-level office by Schaefer.

"He's never had this desire to go to Congress," said former Baltimore County executive Don Hutchinson, who added that Lighthizer frequently complains that it is a haven for "blow-dried" politicians.

Duckett said Lighthizer once expressed interest in the U.S. Senate, but seems less inclined toward a legislative position after five years as an executive.

Cabinet posts and other state-appointed positions are rarely stepping stones to higher office in Maryland, he said.

With Schaefer firmly ensconced in the governor's office, Lighthizer is most likely to find a job as a corporate executive, make some money, and keep as high a political profile as possible in the hope of future opportunities, Duckett said.

At this point, Lighthizer insists he isn't giving it serious thought.

"I'm not one of these people who keeps dreaming about the next move," he said. "I'm just having too much fun right now. I really mean that.

"I never had a job that I enjoyed this much, and I'll probably never have another one like it."