Josh Kurtz: Anne Arundel Agonistes

By Josh Kurtz

“Peyton Place” has got nothing on Anne Arundel County politics right now — though we don‘t recall anything as distasteful as parking lot sex and catheter dumps in the Grace Metalious classic.

Now that disgraced Executive John Leopold (R) has resigned, the County Council is spared the unpleasant business of having to throw him out. But that at least was going to make for a pretty clear-cut, if tortured evening.

How the Council appoints Leopold’s successor could be one for the ages. If it took council members 108 ballots to replace ex-Councilman Daryl Jones (D) after he pleaded guilty to tax fraud, imagine how long it will take them to replace Leopold when they’re scheduled to vote on Feb. 21. Acting Executive John Hammond can probably settle in for a while.

There is, needless to say, peril in this process for both political parties.

Republicans should be calling the tune. They control four of the seven Council seats and a majority of seats in the state legislative delegation — not to mention the hearts and minds of most voters in Anne Arundel, despite what voter registration statistics tell us. Democrats as of December had about 25,000 more enrolled voters in the county than the GOP, but Barack Obama lost there in November, albeit by a mere 197 votes. In 2010, Bob Ehrlich beat Martin O’Malley in the county by almost 11 points.

But Anne Arundel Republicans appear to be experiencing what Maryland Democrats grapple with every day on a grander scale — schisms based on age, ideology, geography and ego, with scant regard to the long-term political consequences and no one equipped to play broker or peacemaker.

Probably the ideal long-term scenario for Republicans is to nominate Del. Steve Schuh for county executive in 2014. He’s a businessman with a fancy pedigree — smart, hardworking, articulate and wealthy, a Main Street Republican who seems acceptable to most factions of the fractious modern-day GOP. He’s already got a lot of money in the bank, and is one of the few up-and-coming Republicans out there who could be a plausible candidate for statewide office in the not-too-distant future.

But the scenario for replacing Leopold in the short term does not necessarily smooth the path for Schuh next year. Whatever is being presented to the public right now, the behind-the-scenes process is akin to a bazaar, or maybe an overheated stock market trading floor. Chaos rules.

Some GOP insiders have suggested that Larry Hogan, the former Ehrlich cabinet secretary who is scoring anti-O’Malley points with his group Change Maryland, take the job on an interim basis — giving him an opportunity to show his mettle in office and a platform for him to air his views, perhaps with an eye on a statewide run in 2014. But Hogan seems loath to do it.

For those looking nostalgically back at the Ehrlich era, there is also chatter that Kendel Ehrlich could get the call. Dan Bongino, the 2012 Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, is also reportedly interested.

State Sen. Ed Reilly (R) at one point suggested he’d be willing to serve as interim executive. But it appears to be dawning on Reilly that if he becomes county exec, then someone else, most likely Del. Cathy Vitale (R), will move up to his Senate seat — something she will not yield so easily come 2014. So unless Reilly wants to retire from politics altogether after next year, becoming part of the post-Leopold sweepstakes might not be a great option for him.

Councilman John Grasso (R), who was already preparing an unconventional run for county executive in 2014, has thrown his hat into the appointment sweepstakes ring — and Schuh has followed suit, probably in a defensive posture as much as anything else. Council President Jerry Walker may also be in the mix. And expect other names to emerge in very short order.

But the whims of the seven council members, especially in such a heated political environment, are anybody’s guess at this stage. And it should not be lost on Republicans that whoever is selected to become interim county executive will almost certainly have to rely on Democratic votes to do so, thanks to the GOP fissures.

That could put the council’s three Democrats in an enviable position, if they’re able to stick together. It’s highly doubtful that they’ll move to put a strong Republican like Schuh in office.

Meanwhile, county and state Democrats will be watching and waiting, to see if they’ll have any hope of recapturing the big job come 2014.

An enduring mystery is why, even with Anne Arundel’s GOP lean, Joanna Conti is the only Democrat who has been willing to come forward for the 2014 executive’s race. It was one thing in 2010, when Leopold initially seemed strong and it was shaping up to be a big Republican year. But in an open-seat contest — or with an interim executive emerging from a bloody process and attempting to run for a full term — why wouldn’t Democrats try to recruit their strongest possible contender?

Conti has compiled a solid record of community service in the past few years, and her new “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Joanna Conti” bumper stickers are cute. But no matter how many pictures of water she puts on her website, no matter how many paeans to the Chesapeake Bay or rhapsodic recollections about seaside vacations back east, the fact is that Conti spent most of her adult life in Colorado and will doubtless be labeled a carpet-bagger by Republicans once again. It was, after all, less than a decade ago that she waged her noble if doomed bid to oust fear-mongering Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo (R) from Congress.

Will Leopold’s sudden departure shake up the political landscape sufficiently to prompt other Democrats to look at the race?

There is some talk in Anne Arundel that the Rev. Henry Green, pastor of the Heritage Baptist Church in Annapolis, is eyeing a political career. Annapolis’ charismatic young mayor Josh Cohen — who seems to have supporters and detractors in equal measure — gets mentioned occasionally, though the somewhat sleepier pace of city politics probably suits him best at this stage of his life. County Councilman Jamie Benoit still plans to retire. Former Executive Janet Owens remains on the sidelines for now – but may be itching to get back in the game.

Some Democrats have urged former Del. Dick D’Amato (D) to take a look at the countywide race — but for now he seems determined to attempt a comeback to the legislature in the newly-constituted District 30.

Many Democrats regard the Anne Arundel talent pool and look longingly at Del. Pam Beidle. She represents a district in the crucial north county, she has experience with county government affairs having once served on the council, and owns her own insurance business. One of the smartest Democratic minds in the state declares “she’s the only Democrat who can win.”

But Beidle seems unwilling to make the leap at present. Maybe the current political instability — and some persuasive party recruiters — will prompt her to look again.

And if anyone thinks we’ve seen the last of John Leopold, they may have another guess coming. Shame is not in the guy’s lexicon. If Marion Barry can have a post-scandal political life, it’s easy to imagine Leopold trying to have one, too. The guy doesn’t know anything besides running for – and serving – in public office. More is the pity.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at joshkurtz92@gmail.com.

Recent Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Numbers Racket

Like Moths to a Flame

New Year’s Appeal

Objects in the Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

Party Like It’s 1986

Sole Practitioner