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?