Anne Arundel County Councilman John Grasso plans to run for county executive in 2018 — setting up the first announced challenge to sitting County Executive Steve Schuh.

Grasso, R-Glen Burnie, told The Capital on Wednesday that he will campaign for the county's top post, reversing an earlier decision to run for state Senate when his second term on the council ends next year.

The council chairman, who is term limited, has in recent weeks teased the possibility of running for several different seats. Late last month, he said he was considering a campaign for county executive or for governor after he was spotted electioneering outside of his district, waving a red-and-white sign that simply said, "Vote John Grasso."

The announcement represents a culmination of Grasso's rising frustration with Schuh and Gov. Larry Hogan, both fellow Republicans, over the reappointment of Anne Arundel County Liquor Board Commissioner John G. Warner.

Hogan reappointed Warner this spring, ignoring a unanimous council resolution that asked him to replace incumbent liquor board commissioners when their terms were up in May. Warner, a Republican, was first appointed to the board more than a decade ago and now serves as its chairman.

In response, Grasso — who has been vocal in alleging corruption and favoritism on the liquor board — banned the board from meeting in the council's chambers and conference room in Annapolis.

Schuh does not have an official role to play in appointing liquor board members. The county executive, who has not yet formally announced his intentions for 2018, said he welcomed Grasso to the race.

"I think competitive primaries are an indispensable part of our democracy," Schuh said. He called Grasso a "great ally on the council."

Recently that alliance has waned, with Grasso and Schuh clashing over a bill that proposed to shift oversight of the Anne Arundel police department's licensed towing program.

After hearing from local towing companies who had complaints about enforcement of the program's regulations, Grasso introduced a bill that would have put the council in charge of those rules — a proposal Schuh's administration vehemently fought, arguing it would represent a deregulation of the police-sponsored program. Council members voted the bill down last month after police promised to include towers in discussions about the program's future.

Grasso, who was scheduled to make his campaign announcement on conservative talk show Red Maryland Radio on Wednesday night, said in a statement that he was tired of seeing Schuh "put politics before people over and over again despite crafty campaign slogans."

He said he wanted to focus on "promoting growth through revitalization" rather than "strictly new development, putting communities in the driving seat before special interest groups, taking a same day treatment approach to the opioid epidemic we are facing, strengthening our first responders' efforts for public safety, and giving everyone a voice."

Grasso also pledged to "work across party lines to accomplish goals."

During his time on the council, he has sided with Democrats on issues such as greater government transparency and the environment. In 2015, he broke with Schuh and other Republicans to support keeping the county's stormwater fee — derided as a "rain tax" by critics — to pay for water quality improvements.

On other topics, such as immigration and taxes, he has embraced traditional conservative values. During the presidential election, he was a supporter of Donald Trump and has likened his brash political style to that of the president.

Schuh defended his 2014 "people before politics" promise as more than a slogan.

"I try my best each and every day to put people before politics... it's something I've tried to live by in my public life," he said. "I won't and I have not and will not make any disparaging remarks about Councilman Grasso."

The county executive said his administration has made "real progress" on his five-point plan, which focuses on reducing taxes, building schools, combating heroin, reforming county government and improving quality of life.

But, he added, "we still have a long way to go — the job is not finished."

Schuh's campaign committee has a significant financial advantage over Grasso, who has done minimal fundraising for past council races. The councilman has instead opted to loan himself money, saying he prefers to limit campaign donations because he does not want to feel beholden to special interests.

For the past two years, Grasso filed affidavits of limited contributions and expenditures asserting that his campaign has cumulatively raised and spent less than $1,000. In 2015, his campaign committee reported just under $5,000 in the bank.

Schuh's campaign had $663,463.68 as of January, according to his most recent finance report.

This isn't the first time Grasso has launched a campaign for county executive. He ran for the seat in 1986, losing in the primary, and in 2014 announced his intention to run for executive before deciding to seek a second term on the council instead.

The primary election will be held June 26, 2018.

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This spring, County Councilman John Grasso announced plans to run for state Senate in northern Anne Arundel. But he spent most of the past week sign-waving along Aris T. Allen Boulevard in Annapolis — south of the district he hopes to represent.

Has Grasso lost his way? 

No. It's just that he's also mulling a run for county executive — or maybe for governor.

Grasso, R-Glen Burnie, said Friday he's considering all three options for 2018, when his second term on the council is up. The sign he printed for roadside electioneering doesn't specify a race: all it says, in chunky red letters on a white background, is "Vote John Grasso."

"In this case, all three races are in play," he said. "I'm going to keep all three of them on their toes."

While Grasso's campaign against longtime state Sen. Ed DeGrange, D-Millersville, would seem a logical next step for his political career, a challenge to County Executive Steve Schuh or Gov. Larry Hogan, both fellow Republicans, is much more unusual.

The council chairman, known for his outspokenness, said he's upset with the reappointment of an incumbent Anne Arundel County Liquor Board commissioner and wants to take Hogan and Schuh to task for the decision.

Hogan reappointed John G. Warner, a Republican who has served on the board for more than a decade, as its chairman this spring. The governor replaced the board's two incumbent Democrats, who stepped down in May, with new commissioners.

Grasso, who has frequently accused the liquor board of corruption and favoritism, said he also wants to see Warner gone. In May, he banned the board from meeting in the council's chambers and conference room in Annapolis because of Warner's reappointment — a step unprecedented in the 30-year memory of the board's attorney. The body now meets in a conference room at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel off Riva Road instead.

Other council members have also expressed frustration with liquor board leadership. In 2015, the council cut $60,000 from the liquor board's budget over concerns about rising contractual legal fees.

Last September, council members unanimously passed Resolution 58-16, which asked Hogan to appoint all-new members to the board as soon as the incumbents' terms were up.

Grasso compared Warner's reappointment to an incomplete oil change.

"You don't just change half the oil," he said. "They can either remove him from the liquor board or one of them's going to have me as an opponent in the primary, it's just that simple."

When asked about Grasso's campaigning, Hogan spokeswoman Amelia Chasse reiterated an earlier statement about the governor's decision to reappoint Warner: "John Warner has served on the board under governors of both parties since 2003 without incident."

Schuh does not have an official say in who sits on the board. Efforts to reach a campaign spokesperson for the county executive were unsuccessful Saturday.

Grasso plans to keep sign-waving "all over the county (and) all over the state." He's headed to Prince George's County next week.

He said it's going well so far: "People down there in south county got the love for me."

His campaigning hasn't received such a warm welcome from the state's Republican party, which hopes to pick up potentially vulnerable seats represented by Democrats in 2018.

Though the Maryland GOP originally lauded Grasso's decision to run for state Senate, chairman Dirk Haire said Saturday that the party recently met with another potential candidate for the seat, though he declined to offer a name.

"Grasso has not shown any interest in Senate District 32," Haire wrote in an email. "As a result, the State Party met with a top-flight potential candidate on Thursday of this week and we are very excited about her and her ability to bring resources and professionalism to the race. We will field a serious and well-funded candidate in District 32."

Haire also criticized Grasso's focus on the liquor board.

"If Grasso thinks a liquor board appointment will carry him to a primary win over County Executive Schuh or Governor Hogan, it makes me wonder if he's spending too much time with liquor," he wrote.

Grasso said he knows he could be putting his political future on the line.

"Here's the problem: I know there's wrongdoing," he said. "And the problem is, if I turn my head around, I just don't feel right about it."

"I'm one of those people, once I get into a fight, I'm going to take it to the end."

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County officials and residents of the Mayo Peninsula met Tuesday night to discuss a proposal to open up construction of private property and beach amenities in the area that has left many locals concerned.

Over 200 residents gathered at the Mayo Elementary School cafeteria to address a panel that included County Executive Steve Schuh, as well as representatives from the Department of Public Works, Office of Planning and Zoning and Recreation and Parks.

Those in attendance expressed worries that lifting an eight-year moratorium on construction on the peninsula could lead to an influx of massive town homes, gridlocked traffic and delays in emergency services.

Matt O'Neal, 34 of Mayo, said that the heavy traffic and lack of places to park at the event on Tuesday already illustrated the gripes of many residents — that the county's first concern should be with the peninsula's infrastructure.

"I think it's an excellent microcosm of what we are concerned with here," O'Neal said. "There is inadequate parking, inadequate seating just for this meeting itself. This is a good example of how disconnected Schuh is from the people of Mayo."

One young boy, identified only as Owen, read a question off a piece of paper to Schuh asking how he will try to protect the surrounding environment and children while expanding construction, and therefore, the amount of people in the area.

"We are committing more resources and human resources at any time in history to maintain the area's environmental quality," Schuh said. "We are trying to make it more accessible so people beyond just immediate neighbors can enjoy it."

Upon saying that, a woman from the crowd yelled out "but more people means more trash." Schuh did not respond to the comment.

But the animosity expanded beyond just the proposed plans. Schuh was greeted with a chorus of boos when he approached the podium in the cafeteria to an overflow crowd. The boos continued when he accidentally referred to South River High School as "South County High School."

Beth Nelson, a 55-year-old resident of the Loch Haven community, said that Schuh, while well-intentioned, never truly understood the impact the plans for construction would have on the peninsula's residents.

"He's trying to make a point about what he's inherited, and I think everybody understands that," Nelson said. "But this has such a huge impact on our daily lives and I think he needs to get that. We may not be a huge part of Anne Arundel County, but he needs to get that."

Residents expressed less trepidation about enhancements to Beverly Triton Beach Park, which has been owned by Anne Arundel County since the 1980s.

A few speakers said the proposed additions to the 341-acre park — a few gazebos, a parking lot, bathrooms with running water and improvements to trails — might attract masses of visitors to the peninsula that could disrupt the neighborhood and contribute to pollution of the Chesapeake Bay.

Cindy Williams, 51 of Edgewater, said her main concern is not about the plans for the beach. The bigger problem, she said, is making sure that current residents and visitors have adequate roads on which to travel.

"I've read over and over again that the people who live on this peninsula are trying to deny access to the water," Williams said. "That's not what we are about. We just feel like it makes sense to do things properly. You build up the infrastructure first."

To other people concerned about a rapid population growth, Schuh said it is very unlikely that huge developments like 500-unit town homes could pop up in the area.

He said mass construction wasn't feasible because South River High School is at its capacity, and major residential construction can't occur if the high school the area feeds into is full.

"The closure of South River High School won't end until fiscal year '21 or '22," Schuh said, "which means there won't be any large-scale development for a while."

Once again crowds shouted out, "stop using the term large-scale" and "what does that mean?"

"I'm sorry, but that's my answer," Schuh said.

Eight years ago, the county placed a construction moratorium on the peninsula to stop new developments after the area's water treatment facility reached maximum capacity.

But there have been talks to lift that moratorium in the next eight months, after the county began work on connecting a water treatment facility in Annapolis to the one in Mayo Peninsula with a sewer main, Schuh said.

The pipe, which began construction in 2015, is set for completion early next year, Schuh said. Once it is finished, he added, it can be expected that the moratorium will be lifted.

The construction on the beach property and surrounding areas could begin as early as fiscal 2019 and reach completion the following year.

Until more focus can be placed on the roads and schools in the area, O'Neal said, it is unlikely residents will get on board with other changes.

"The infrastructure itself cannot facilitate the residents that are already here," O'Neal said. "Better roads, better schools, better fire and emergency services — I think that must be handled before any new influx of parks or residential housing."

County Councilman John Grasso, who late last year asked to join the protracted legal battle between a liquor license applicant and the Anne Arundel County Board of License Commissioners, has been called before the county's ethics commission to discuss his involvement in the case.

The Glen Burnie Republican said he was served by the commission on Thursday. The summons orders him to bring all documents related to a liquor license request from The Depot Fine Wine and Spirits to a hearing on Jan. 20.

Owners of the Depot LLC have tried for more than three years to obtain a liquor license for a business in Parole's Gateway Shopping Center. The county's liquor board has denied the application twice, arguing the area is already well stocked with liquor stores.

The case is now in Circuit Court, with an administrative appeal hearing scheduled for Feb. 1.

In October, Grasso filed a brief asking to be a party to the Circuit Court case. While the Gateway Shopping Center is not in his district, he said he had been asked by constituents to help overturn the license denial and wanted to represent the public's view in court.

A judge rejected Grasso's request after attorneys for liquor stores opposed to the Depot argued he didn't have standing and was attempting to use his political influence in court.

At the time, the ethics commission remained silent on whether Grasso had crossed a line by attempting to join the case. Though the liquor board is mostly governed by state charter, council members have power over its budget.

In discussions on the liquor board's budget for fiscal 2016, council members, including Grasso, voted to cut $60,000 after questioning its leadership about a requested $70,000 budget increase intended to pay for growing legal fees.

Friday, Grasso reiterated the view that he is standing up for public opinion. He called the ethics commission summons "just one facet of the screwed-up system."

As for his October request, he said, "I'll do that stuff all day long when people aren't being treated fairly. I'm not going to bow down to anybody while I sit there and watch a segment of our government abuse their powers for favoritism to other people."

In March, the ethics commission fined liquor board Chairman Melvin Hyatt $2,500 — the maximum penalty allowed under the law — for not disclosing his connection to Severn Bancorp, which also had business dealings with stores that opposed the Depot's license application. 

Real estate firm Hyatt Commercial is a wholly owned subsidiary of the bank, which also "engaged in substantial business" with several of the protestants in the Depot case, according to the commission's order. Hyatt has since recused himself from the case.

Steve Schuh admitted it was a bit odd testifying for the first time before Anne Arundel County’s legislative delegation, which he chaired last year.

Now, as the new county executive, he was asking their help on legislation and funding. Last year, as delegation chair, he was hearing requests from County Executive Laura Neuman, the woman he eventually defeated in the Republican primary.

There was also an unusual dynamic with a member of the delegation named Michael Busch, a delegate representing the Annapolis area. He is more commonly known as Mr. Speaker in his role as the Democratic leader of the House of Delegates.

That is technically a part-time position, and Busch also has a day job as the recreation administrator for the county’s Department of Recreation and Parks.

As one of the three most powerful men in state government, along with the governor and Senate president, Busch can be immensely helpful to Anne Arundel County. But as leader of the Democratic Party in the House of Delegates, Busch also has an agenda to pursue, as he did with Schuh.

As a new Republican county executive closely allied with the new Republican governor, Larry Hogan, Schuh’s role has changed from being a critic of the budgets under Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley to a supporter of the budget proposed by Hogan. At the delegation meeting, Schuh called Hogan’s plan the right approach.

“Gov. Hogan is making the tough decisions to put Maryland on a fiscally sustainable path with a balanced, no-new-taxes budget,” Schuh said in a statement. “By slowing the rate of growth in state spending and setting clear priorities, the governor’s budget will lead to a more efficient use of tax dollars, while maintaining a record level of education spending.”

School Funding and the Rain Tax

Busch asked Schuh if he was concerned about the $15 million reduction in funding from the level that county schools had expected. Schuh was not.

“We’d certainly try to find resources to support [schools] along with the Board of Education,” Schuh said.

Anne Arundel County fared better than most counties in the state, getting a $7.5 million increase in state aid, a 1.6% increase. More than half the counties will get less money from the state than they did last year. Overall, state aid went up only 0.4%, with a total increase of only $30 million, the bulk of it for education.

Busch also pressed Schuh on the “rain tax,” the stormwater management charges Anne Arundel and nine other counties were required to impose.

Schuh voted for the rain tax as a delegate and he had one of the best environmental records among Republicans in the House. But Neuman constantly pounded him for his votes supporting the rain tax, and Hogan has pledged to seek repeal of the rain tax, which was one of the least popular measures O’Malley signed.

“Do you have enough flexibility to adjust for any kind of costs [associated with reducing stormwater pollution]?” Busch asked.

“Now that I’m in county government, I would be glad to see any mandate relief that we could get,” Schuh said. “But even if the mandate were removed at the state level, we would still move forward, full-speed ahead, with the same dollar amounts as we are planning to spend now on remediation of our storm pipes.”

Modest Initiatives

Schuh’s own initiatives with the legislature are fairly modest.

He is seeking a bill to allow county police officers to work at bars and restaurants that serve alcohol, including the Maryland Live! Casino. They are currently allowed to have secondary employment as security guards, but not where alcohol is served.

Schuh is also seeking an exemption from liability for first responders, such as police and firefighters, who administer the drug Narcan to prevent death when they encounter heroin overdoses.

Heroin overdoses by all classes of people have grown in the suburban counties. The state health department says there were 41 deaths from heroin overdoses in Anne Arundel County in 2013. Schuh has declared the issue a public health emergency.

Not as Entertaining

County Council Chairman Jerry Walker also spoke to the delegation about the loss of highway user revenues, money from the gasoline tax that the state used to share with the counties before the recession. The money is used for county road projects.

But first, Walker apologized for not being as “entertaining” as former Council Chairman John Grasso, who made last year’s presentation.

Grasso was reelected to his seat in November, and he continues to create controversy with his frequent blunt talk. In January, he made headlines by telling people seeking more affordable housing in Anne Arundel County that they shouldn’t live there if they couldn’t afford it. He called people seeking government assistance “freeloaders.”

The remarks came during a hearing about a bill that would limit where affordable housing could be built in Anne Arundel. The bill passed.

Grasso is a landlord with apartments for mostly low-income residents.

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