This is a story of persistence rewarded, a lesson in how to get government employees to come to your house eager to solve your problem. In Gerald Cornell's world, constituent service isn't just a concept.
"Let's just say I'm a very tenacious person," said Cornell, 69.
Worried that a construction project behind his Burtonsville house would leave him with a flooded basement, Cornell began calling Montgomery County officials several months ago. Frustrated with what he called the county's non-response, he started trying to reach officials at the Maryland Department of the Environment. Still nothing. Construction continued unmodified. His worries worsened.
On June 10, he deployed the magic bullet: an e-mail to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). Typed up and dispatched by Cornell's mortgage-banker grandson, the e-mail noted the failings of lesser officials to meet the challenge of addressing Cornell's concern. Cornell also put some spin on the missive: "Governor Erlich, it is in your best political interest to pay attention to the homeowners of Montgomery County. I have been a republican for 69 years and counting."
Misspelling the governor's name was a typo. The small "r" in republican was not. Cornell is a Republican only by a "big stretch of the imagination," he conceded. He voted twice for Ehrlich's Democratic predecessor, although he said he backed Ehrlich in 2002.
Misspellings and misperceptions aside, Cornell suddenly got some face time with bureaucrats. On Friday, two state environmental officials showed up at his house, along with four -- count them -- four members of Montgomery's Department of Permitting Services.
Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County), Cornell's district representative on the County Council, heard about the meeting ahead of time and sent her chief aide, Joy Nurmi. "I was literally beating a path to his door," Nurmi said.
The outcome remains to be seen. Kevin Lethbridge, the developer of the four-acre, five-house project abutting Cornell's land, said he has "worked with the county in every way possible."
He pointed out that he is not an interloper, eager to take his profits and run. "I was born and raised in Burtonsville," he said, wearing a faded Burtonsville Athletic Association T-shirt. His kids go to school with kids on Cornell's street. But he knows his local roots won't necessarily save him from the Tenacious One.
Others in the construction business have told him a thing or two about Cornell.
"He [complains] at everybody," Lethbridge said.
Cornell, a retired engineer, has perfected several techniques to make sure he can get in someone's face or at least in his or her ear. He pays attention to his caller ID when officials call back, so he can jot down their direct lines. He calls bigwigs at lunchtime or after hours, when assistants are not around to answer the phone.
He is very pleased with the state's "perfect" citizen-response. "The county likes to play blame games," he observed. "Ehrlich is more helpful to citizens than any governor I've seen in my lifetime."
Even so, do many constituents manage to convene meetings of government officials in their own homes?
"Probably not," said Nurmi, the council member's aide. "But how many people write the governor?"
Hundreds do every day, said Shareese N. DeLeaver, an Ehrlich spokeswoman.
During legislative sessions, most of the mail urges the governor to go this way or that on an issue. Off-season, most writers petition his intervention.
Ehrlich takes responding to constituents very seriously, she said. "It is the backbone of the administration."
Cornell's "republican" gambit was unnecessary, DeLeaver added. Constituent letters, e-mails and faxes "are not given special treatment based on partisan affiliation," she said.