The placard on his desk says "The buck stops here." A sign posted nearby admonishes "Don't quit." For veteran Montgomery County Council member Michael L. Gudis, the sayings serve as ironic reminders of a year of unprecedented controversy and political embarrassment.
Gudis has come under wilting criticism and been made the target of cruel public jokes as a lawmaker who can't make or stick by a decision, the antithesis of the motto that adorns his desk. His recent surprise announcement to become a candidate for Congress and his equally abrupt exit from the race were, his critics say, merely the latest evidence of the indecision that has marked his tenure on the council.
Gudis has emerged from the shadows of the council, where he has spent most of his three terms as a quiet vote, into a blare of questions about his record, his beliefs, his character, his political future.
This unaccustomed furor has caused him to pause to take stock of himself as he starts his 10th year on the council and prepares to take his turn as council president beginning in December.
" 'Eighty-eight is starting for me now . . . . I don't feel defeated. I won't be intimidated by anyone and I am not giving up," he said last week over a lunch squeezed in between council meetings.
He traces the start of the bad times to last summer and the publicity he got after hiring as his confidential aide the woman who lives with him. His hiring of Patricia Lee Clark for the $41,200 job was legal, and no one has questioned her qualifications. But eyebrows shot up.
A month later came his deciding vote on a hotly disputed planning board appointment of John P. Hewett. Gudis first abstained, and when he switched his vote to confirm the appointment, he earned the opposition of the NAACP, a group he had counted as his friends.
Hewett was county parks director in the late 1960s and early '70s when that department operated segregated facilities. Hewett denied knowing of such segregation.
Then came another controversial issue when a civic group questioned whether he had a conflict of interest in casting the deciding vote to build a huge trash incinerator in Dickerson, on land owned by a utility in which Gudis holds stock. The county attorney found no conflict of interest.
The joke about the Gudis sandwich ("Jello between two waffles") surfaced. His house was picketed by the NAACP. And just when things started to die down, Gudis on Dec. 24 said he was entering the race to become the Democratic candidate for Congress in Maryland's 8th District. More jokes ("What's an oxymoron? Congressman Gudis."). Two weeks later, though he had received the support of some key Democratic politicians, he found himself unable to answer some questions about national issues in an election debate. He dropped out of the race.
At 51, he is a mild-mannered man who says that he resembles the stereotype of the accountant that he is by training. His resume of civic, political and professional activities spans 32 years and covers two single-spaced typed pages. The walls of his council office in Rockville display the plaques and certificates of public life.
But even some political admirers see a curious lack of a politician's persona. He doesn't seek publicity. He often has seemed to be eclipsed -- some say dominated -- by the personalities of strong council members. "I have preferred to work behind the scenes," Gudis said.
His career is one of climbing the political ladder, becoming active in the local Democratic Party after leaving his job as a fiscal analyst in the U.S. Treasury Department. He started out at the precinct level near his Burtonsville home, helped in other campaigns, attended party events. One longtime Democratic activist calls him the "prototypical political laborer in the vineyard . . . who got the rewards for being there."
Gudis' toughest race was his first, the 1978 primary when he squeaked by two other candidates with 45 percent of the vote. He had an easier time in later years, running on the slates of strong incumbents who were swept into office.
Until his short-lived congressional run, he had been content with the council and even sold a rather successful accounting firm during his first term so he could devote full time to his council job, which now pays him $44,344. It's no secret that he thinks his fiscal background would make him a good candidate to become Maryland state comptroller some day.
The events of recent months clearly have caused some political damage. But many Democratic activists interviewed think there is time in the three years before the next council elections for Gudis to repair the damage -- and for voters to forget.
Controversies or no, Gudis holds on to his ambitions. Mike Gudis won't, he says, be the Rodney Dangerfield of Montgomery County. Ask him how he feels -- with the stress on feelings -- about the jokes, the stories and his critics. There is a hesitation: "I don't hate anyone. You have to understand that. I am just not that kind of person."
What kind is he?
Jay Bernstein, a former Democratic county chairman who has known Gudis for 20 years, said: "It obviously takes Mike a long time to make up his mind on an issue. But there is no doubt he is a competent and dedicated public servant . . . ."
Said Roscoe Nix, president of the Montgomery County chapter of the NAACP, which split with Gudis on the planning board appointment: "The record shows that he is afraid to make the tough decisions. He fears not being liked, he fears not being in the majority."
Clark, Gudis' confidential aide and companion, called him "a good representative of Montgomery County who knows this county backward and forward and who really cares about it . . . ."
Scott Fosler, a former council member who served with Gudis, said that people who who have gotten to know him well have found that they must be very careful when Gudis says he is going to do something. "You can't quite count on it . . . . It is always a consideration," Fosler said..
Joan Mann, an Eastern Montgomery civic activist, said, "I don't say he is the best council member we could have, but he is certainly attentive to our needs."
And council President Michael L. Subin said: "Mike's a nice guy. Leave him alone."
Gudis knows he has an image problem. Part, he thinks, is because publicity about him has not shown "the whole picture."
He noted, for example, that he -- reputed to be weak and indecisive -- actually ended up casting many tough deciding votes last year. He said his behind-the-scenes work, his skill at compromise helped end the impasse over placing the fire rescue service under greater county control.
Gudis also thinks he is victim of his own style. He said he does try to be nice to people, he tends to be quiet and he doesn't always announce his decisions because he wants to listen to all sides before he makes up his mind.
"It's a matter of style . . . being more open with people," Gudis said, vowing to seek the limelight more, to be more forceful.
Witness a meeting last week with county transportation officials to discuss constituents' demands for traffic lights and other improvments. Like a boxer returning to his corner between rounds, Gudis ducked out of his office for a minute to consult with aide Clark.
"Are you being tough enough in there?" Clark asked. "Or do you need me to come in?"
"No," Gudis said, "I can do it."