When she entered the race to replace John R. Leopold as county executive, Laura Neuman had a far higher profile in business than she did in politics. Many of the other 15 candidates were better known. But the County Council pulled a surprise, granting her the seat in a 4-3 vote.
It wasn't the first time Neuman, a 48-year-old Annapolitan, came to the table with a seemingly weak hand and raked in all the chips.
Born to a family of modest means in East Baltimore, she never finished high school or college, but during her 20s talked her way into the MBA program at Loyola University Maryland. By 30, she was running a nationwide tech company. Four years after that, a bigger firm offered her the president's title and a $450,000 salary, but she turned it down to become the unpaid CEO of a failing startup. That company, Matrics Technology Systems Inc., sold for $230 million in 2004.
"They say one person in the right place at the right time can make all the difference," says William Bandy, co-founder of Matrics, which streamlined radio-frequency technology. "Laura did."
She was also fighting major demons. Neuman was raped at gunpoint in her apartment at age 18. Detectives and family members doubted her story. She persisted with Baltimore police until they reopened the case in 2002. Her assailant was convicted, later linked to 12 unsolved rape cases in Baltimore County, and given seven sentences totaling 75 years.
Neuman, a married but separated mother of two, takes a $100,000 pay cut on leaving her old job as CEO of the Howard County Economic Development Authority, but she calls that a price worth paying for a chance to "restore faith in government" in the county she loves.
One might be tempted to say it would be unwise to bet against Neuman, Anne Arundel's eighth county executive. She spoke with The Baltimore Sun last week.
Were you surprised to get the job?
The process was more involved than many people think. I spent lots of time with each council member before the vote, and there were numerous follow-up emails and conversations. I knew the interviews had gone well, but I always say it's never done until it's done.
What was your first day like?
Candidly, it felt surreal. I got up next morning and met with the county delegation. After the swearing-in, I had several meetings with the press, then walked into my new office. There was no computer, believe it or not, and the [physical] environment was very uninviting. [The rest of] that day was devoted to meeting the people who work here.
You soon asked for the resignation of all appointed department heads.
I want to deal right away with the challenging situations that preceded me and move on from them. I want to be clear we're going to focus on delivery of service to the community, not the drama and scandal that have unfortunately plagued us the last couple of years. I want to be clear that the culture will change.
Bear in mind, the resignations are a formality. Each one triggers a 30-day review process. Many folks … will be staying.
Do any policy issues leap out right away?
One is stormwater management. The state has made it clear we must comply, so we have no choice but to do that. It's a question of how we put that together. … There will be no dramatic changes in the budget for the coming fiscal year, [but] we're operating very lean here, so we need to maximize our resources.
Our calendar and email system in [county government] is 10 or 15 years out of date. This will sound shocking, but I haven't been able to access email on my computer since the day I arrived. It takes several seconds to pull up an email on my iPhone. It's so wasteful doing that hundreds of times a day. [This is] why I've brought in a new [chief information officer, Richard Durkee of Davidsonville].
We also need to bring a little light to [government offices]. Everything here is outdated, like the old-time portraits on the first floor. We're going to announce an art contest with the school students to get some new work up. I'd love to have it all through the building.
You've lived in Annapolis for 21 years. Why'd you come in the first place?
I came for a visit when I was 27. I'd never been on a boat, and I wanted to experience it, so I called a friend and [got on a] sailboat in a spring series race. It was very intense, just exhilarating. The mast was making noises like it was going to crack off. I was hanging on for dear life. I moved here two weeks later, renting a room in a house. … I've been in Annapolis ever since.
What do you love about the county?
There's something about the quality of life here. It's casual yet formal. We have the tradition of the Naval Academy; [Annapolis] is the state capital. But we have the relaxed atmosphere of the bay. The sense of community is strong. I love raising my family here.
How did your early years shape your life and thinking?
I grew up in very limited [financial] circumstances. My parents did the best they could, and I'm proud of them … but I don't know whether they were prepared for the difficulty of raising [five] kids. Our car didn't work half the time. … I didn't finish high school or college. I figured out early on that I had to make my own plan and plan my own life, and become responsible for my own financial independence.
Did you have mentors?
I always say the library was my mentor. I learned more about what existed in the world from the library than anywhere else. I learned about how other people lived. I read books about other children my age — what it was like in their family and in their neighborhood. Those weren't the neighborhoods I lived in.
Any books in particular?
[Laughs.] Judy Blume's "Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret." I'm a big Nancy Drew fan, and I read all the Hardy Boys. I love biography and history. ... I always say every person has an interesting story, and I love to learn how they got to where they've come to in life.
Your story has had its own twists, including the sexual assault you say affected you deeply. Can you talk about it?
I was sound asleep in my apartment [in the Cedarcroft neighborhood in Baltimore]. When I woke up, my face was already covered with a pillow, and the gun was literally touching my right temple. It was clear to me he had done this before.
My roommate got home a bit later and drove me to a shopping center to call [police] on a pay phone. There were no cellphones; this was 1983. It took them 45 minutes to arrive, and even though they were thorough with the crime scene, they made it clear from the beginning they didn't believe me. As a result, others didn't either, including members of my own family.
Why are others sometimes skeptical about rape charges?
There are rare situations where allegations are made that are untrue. But there has been a culture — I do think it's changing — but there has been a culture of disbelief. Maybe we can't believe that something so terrible could actually happen. But being raped, I always say, is a life sentence. It's a difficult thing to ever truly recover from. And when you're not believed, it's almost unreal.
You decided to speak about the experience. You started the Laura Neuman Foundation to support rape victims. In 2003, "48 Hours" featured your story. Was speaking out hard?
It's very difficult. I gave serious thought to staying private. But I believe that at the end of the day, the folks who are most affected are the ones who have to stand up and say, "This isn't OK." Then others might step forward, too, and as we start to pull back the secrecy and darkness that surround this crime, things will start to change. [And] now, I've spoken out for so long it has really released its hold over me.
Let's fast-forward to 1999. You've been running a successful tech company, and CyberRep, the call-center firm, offered you a huge salary to be president. Why'd you turn it down?
I had just come out of a company where I was paid well and had a great title but had no equity. I decided that if I was going to work that hard to build something, I wanted to own a piece of it.
Also, because of the way I grew up, it was important that I go out and prove that I could make a success on my own. I wanted to bet on myself. At the end of the day, I did.
Did you ever think, "I'm nuts?"
We all have moments of doubt. But you also have to have an undeniable belief in yourself to accomplish something that most people think you can't.
I cashed in all of my savings. I cashed in my 401k and paid my mortgage on a credit card. I borrowed money from friends. I took no salary, only equity. But the founders [National Security Agency scientists Bandy and Michael Arneson] were good guys with a good idea.
You're a Republican, yet the only political donation you've made has been to [Democratic Howard County Executive] Ken Ulman. What should we make of that?
What you should make of that is that I think he's a super-smart guy who's dedicated to moving Maryland forward. I also have attended a Republican fundraising event where Michael Steele was the speaker. His comments resonated with me.
As I have recently become fond of saying, my politics are conservative, but my approach is collaborative. This is a largely Democratic state. If we don't recognize that we need to work together, we won't make progress. I'm very much a collaborator.
Back to Anne Arundel: How can we better balance environmental concerns and business interests?
You probably know from my [background] that I'm in favor of economic development. Jobs need to come to the community. That only happens through economic development. But many of us moved here for the bay. We want to make sure we continue to invest in the bay and sustain it. Economic development can be done thoughtfully to balance the two..
It's important for [developers] to get in to [meet with county officials] early so they understand the guidelines and review process. That way they can set projects up for success — success for the developer, the county and the citizens where the project resides.
There are folks in the planning and zoning, inspections and permits and economic development departments who have been serving the county well and for a long time, but they need good leadership. I'd like the system to be more user-friendly. We need to make it easier for people to get the job done.
You've also said you aim to keep taxes low. Can you explain?
Working in the public sector for the last several years has given me a new appreciation for how much we need government. We need roads. We need schools. But we need economic development to create jobs. I like to keep taxes low, but there has to be a balance. Where should the line be? That requires discussions with the citizens.
Will you run again in 2014?
The task at hand is so extraordinary that I've given it almost no thought. At some point, when things are a little calmer, I'll think about that.
Finally, has Chick and Ruth's Delly named a sandwich after you?
I do love Chick and Ruth's. But I don't think it should be a sandwich. It should be a spinach-and-feta omelet with fruit on the side, or maybe a green salad with lots of vegetables. I'm really a green salad kind of girl.