ANNAPOLIS -- Kenneth Riggleman moved to the southwest corner of Anne Arundel County 15 years ago for the quiet pleasures of a rural lifestyle. His enthusiasm for country living was quickly tempered, though, by a feeling that his community was forgotten by county officials.
That's why Riggleman finds County Council member Theodore J. Sophocleus (D) refreshing. When Sophocleus, the Democratic nominee for county executive, took an hour from a frantic campaign schedule Saturday to meet with Riggleman and seven neighbors about their fight to keep a gravel mine out of the area, he won Riggleman's vote.
"I have the opinion that you can call him up, make an appointment and chew on his ear for a while. If you lose, at least you have had your say," said Riggleman, a lifelong Republican who works as a banker in Northern Virginia.
Accessibility and an affable personality are the keys to Sophocleus's popularity. Selling himself as a compassionate, civic-minded advocate of the people, he has turned what was once perceived as a long-shot bid for the county's highest office into a strong -- possibly winning -- campaign.
Although Sophocleus's retail brand of politics is generating considerable popular support, including endorsements from such key groups as the Sierra Club and the county teachers union, his style has also drawn murmurs of worry from business leaders who question whether he is too susceptible to pressure to sustain an independent vision of the county's future.
"Even when he commits to something, you can't go to the bank on it until he actually casts his vote. And that is because he runs scared if there are three people who stand up and take a position that is different from the one he said he'd take," a former county official said. "We used to joke about having to be the last person to talk to him."
Sophocleus dismisses such criticism, saying, "I never give a guarantee on anything." He adds that his 18 years as a corporate manager for a Baltimore drugstore chain has prepared him to be a hard-nosed leader. "I try to hear all sides and to get all the information I can before I make a decision."
His opponent, former Maryland House of Delegates Republican leader Robert R. Neall, may have the impressive credentials, but Sophocleus, 51, a Linthicum pharmacist, has the far-flung county wired like an expensive car, ready to deliver droves of loyal supporters to the polls on Election Day.
Building on allegiances forged during his days as a PTA president, youth football coach and owner of a corner drugstore, he has appealed to disaffected voters by pledging to make citizen participation and consensus the hallmarks of his administration.
"People view him as one of them, as Everyman," said Jerry Grant, an aide to Rep. Tom McMillen (D-Md.), who is advising Sophocleus. "He is a very sincere, down-to-earth human being. And that comes through."
However, some county officials who have worked with Sophocleus during his eight years on the County Council wonder whether a politician so wedded to an image as a "people pleaser" -- a candidate who has unself-consciously chosen a teddy bear as his campaign symbol -- could force himself to make the unpopular decisions that come with the executive's job, particularly during uncertain economic times.
They note that the candidate's platform has been long on ambitious environmental protection measures and programs for senior citizens and teenagers but short on specifics of how he would balance the budget if the property tax limitation measure on the county's ballot passes.
Admirers counter that Sophocleus's years on the council have shown him to be an energetic and astute problem-solver. While he sponsored few bills, his attention to detail helped shape landmark legislation.
When County Executive James Lighthizer (D) proposed the state's first impact fees on new development, for instance, Sophocleus helped craft amendments exempting certain areas where road and school crowding was not severe, an action he says kept housing prices in those areas down. He also delved deeply into the finances of the county's troubled utilities department, working to reduce the fees paid by senior citizens and to finance capital projects to reduce sewage spills.
Still, what most supporters remember about Sophocleus is his benign omnipresence, his willingness to attend every public hearing, crab feast, church banquet and community forum he can cram into the day. It is a habit he developed long before he decided to run for county executive. But once he entered the race it began paying off handsomely, giving him the rudiments of a campaign organization and a familiarity with the pet peeves of individual neighborhoods.
"He has come and come and come to places where no other elected officials have," said council Chairman Virginia P. Clagett (D).
Sophocleus traces his commitment to grass-roots activism to his childhood in a closely knit, working-class Baltimore neighborhood. Like other Greek immigrants, his steelworker father and his mother were strong supporters of the local Greek Orthodox church, helping found a parish school. Sophocleus, the youngest of three boys, also was influenced by a young man who got him involved in a neighborhood sports program and preached "the importance of giving something back."
His reactions are often memorable: At a senior citizens center Christmas dance several years ago, Sophocleus noticed an elderly woman picking out carols on a portable keyboard poorly suited to the task. Residents told him that the woman, who was dying of cancer, was a graduate of the Peabody Institute and missed playing the piano.
The next day, Sophocleus searched the classified ads for a used piano. The closest thing he could find was an organ. He bought it with $100 out of his own pocket and sent it to the woman.
His reputation for kindness helped deflect criticism from Sophocleus last month. After Neall accused him of trying to hide illegal campaign donations by falsely listing dozens of senior citizens as contributors, his elderly supporters rallied to his defense and the issue faded.
"The beauty of this campaign is, when it's over I'll be able to go into any part of the county and put my hand on a friend," Sophocleus said. "You can't ask any more from life than that."