EDGEWATER – It’s a perfect autumn afternoon in the Woodland Beach neighborhood in Edgewater. Leaves are scattered on the grass, American flags abound, and as people are beginning to come home from work, George F. Johnson, candidate for Anne Arundel County Executive, is out with a loyal cadre of volunteers knocking on doors.
“People respect someone who’s been in this business,” says the jovial 53-year-old Johnson, already well known in Anne Arundel after three terms as county sheriff and a 35-year career in law enforcement, as he knocks on another door.
“Hello, sir,” he tells a surprised Clifford Pierre Coryell, who answers that door. “I’m running for county exec and my name is George…”
“George Johnson, how ya doin’?” beams Coryell, a registered Democrat who said he already planned to vote for Democrat Johnson.
Coryell is one of the voters Johnson is counting on to defeat his Republican opponent, state Delegate John R. Leopold, of Pasadena. In this autumn of close elections in Maryland – among them a neck and neck race for governor and a narrowing U.S. Senate contest – the Anne Arundel County Executive race may well be the closest of them all.
A poll released Oct. 26 by Anne Arundel Community College gave Leopold a slight 38 to 37 percent lead, with a quarter of respondents undecided. Another, by Capital-Gazette Newspapers had Johnson ahead 43 to 41 percent, with 13 percent undecided. Both polls are well within the margin of error.
Oddly enough, the philosophical differences and policy disputes that have marked other races across the state and nation this fall are not overwhelming here in the race to succeed Democrat Janet S. Owens as executive of the state’s fourth largest county with a population of just over half a million.
Both men are moderate to conservative in a county that voted overwhelmingly for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich four years ago and went for George W. Bush in 2004. Both talk about supporting schools, keeping taxes low and focusing growth in areas that are prepared to receive it.
But that does not mean the race has not been bitter. Leopold, a 63-year-old member of the House of Delegates with a 30-year-career in elected office, has routinely assailed the sheriff as a “good ol’ boy” tied to developers and other special interests. Johnson has fired back in commercials tying Leopold to utility companies.
Dan Nataf, director of the Center for the Study of Local Issues at the Anne Arundel Community College, says party identification may still play a role in swinging the race.
“If you have a lot of Democrats go out because they are whipped up about Bush and O’Malley…that could be the difference in the race,” he said.
But for many Anne Arundel voters like Coryell, crossing party lines is nothing out of the ordinary, which is why both candidates have worked to highlight their crossover appeal. Even though Democrats hold a ten point edge on voter registration, four of the past six Anne Arundel County executives have been Republicans.
“I’m a registered Democrat, but that doesn’t mean I’m voting straight Democrat,” Coryell cautioned Johnson when the sheriff knocked on his door the other day. “I like [U.S. Senate candidate] Michael Steele.”
Nataf said voters are hard pressed to find tangible differences in the two candidates’ approaches to the issues they consider most important, which include growth management and education. In the absence of such fault lines, he said, both candidates are attempting to win over voters by selling an image they hope will tilt the election in their favor.
Given how close the race is, both candidates say they are not taking a single vote for granted. That comes natural to Leopold, who over the years has developed a reputation for dealing one on one with his constituents. He says he has knocked on about 17,000 doors during the current election cycle.
As the Nov. 7 election day nears, both sides have stepped up their campaigns with television ads, radio commercials and phone banks. Advertisements and campaign pitches stress both candidates’ crossover appeal.
Johnson received a boost two weeks ago when five former Anne Arundel executives, including four Republicans, endorsed his candidacy. Johnson said the Republican support was a testament to his bipartisan approach over the past 12 years as the county’s elected sheriff.
Leopold moved quickly to dismiss the significance of the endorsements. Framing himself as an outside agent of change, Leopold said they magnified how his opponent represents the “good ol’ boy system that had a grip on the county for decades.” That network, he said, has hurt the county by being in the pockets of developers and special interests.
Leopold has also attacked Johnson’s record as sheriff, hammering him for accepting salary increases from state lawmakers and for being fined for failing to meet a campaign report filing deadline.
“I sense an undercurrent in this campaign,” Leopold said. “People are hungry for a change, for independent leadership. I represent that agent of change.”
Leopold says the breadth of his career as a state legislator, which also includes 12 years in the Hawaii state legislature, makes him more qualified for the job than Johnson. He proudly mentions his endorsements from The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun and The Annapolis Capital.
Johnson, however, says Leopold’s career renders him unfit to run the entire county.
“My opponent is not a lifelong resident and has been confined to a particular legislative district,” he said. “I’ve been everywhere in this county.”
As sheriff, Johnson served as an administrator on a county-wide level, he notes. “I’ve spent 12 years developing and managing budgets, 12 years of labor negotiations and 12 years of implementing policy in the county,” he said.
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