Lonesome Leader

Nobody likes John Leopold but the voters. They've put him in charge of one of Maryland's biggest jurisdictions.
by | January 2007

When John Leopold was a boy, his mother told him, "Not everyone in the world is going to love you, and that's okay." Her words proved prophetic. Leopold has made many enemies in politics, and he still has quite a few. But that hasn't prevented him from enjoying a long and varied public career. A state legislator and gubernatorial candidate in Hawaii, and then a longtime member of the Maryland House, he took office last month as Republican executive of Maryland's populous Anne Arundel County.

Leopold's narrow win in November was one of the few bright spots for the GOP anywhere in Maryland in 2006. But he continues to draw a stream of criticism from his own party. All former county executives, including Republicans, endorsed his opponent last year.

Former GOP colleagues call the 63-year-old Leopold an opportunist and self-promoter. Some have accused him of taking credit for their work while he served in the state House. But Leopold attributes the derision to the fact that he insists on going his own way. A bit of a throwback as a campaigner, he never hires campaign staff or pays for polls. Instead, he spends his time knocking on doors or standing by roadsides holding a big red sign that announces his name.

During nearly two decades in the Maryland House, Leopold became known for diligent attention to constituent service. As a Republican in a chamber dominated by the other party, Leopold didn't sponsor major legislation but frequently worked with the Democratic majority. That may be one reason why other Republicans don't like him, suggests Dan Nataf, a political scientist at Anne Arundel Community College. "John Leopold was not much of a party cheerleader," he says. In his campaign last year, he managed to turn his opponent's many endorsements and hefty campaign treasury into liabilities, saying they resulted from ties to the "old boys' network" that had brought the county crowded roads and schools.

Leopold campaigned for county executive on a promise to control growth, and now he must try to make good on it. That will be difficult, particularly in light of a planned expansion of the huge Fort Meade army base. Leopold also will struggle to hold the line against tax increases, which he has pledged to do despite the school system's sizable construction backlog and a spate of public employee union contracts coming up for renewal.

Even some of Leopold's supporters wonder whether he will be up to the challenge of his new job. Despite his years in politics, he's never run anything much bigger than a two-person office--not even a full- time campaign staff. But for all the caviling, Leopold so far has made the right moves, keeping experienced county staff and winning applause for hiring on the basis of experience, rather than party loyalty. His chief of staff is a Democrat; there are few well-known Republicans anywhere in his administration.

Leopold's career has been full of surprises. If he manages to be successful as an administrator without help from his own party, that will be the most impressive surprise of all.