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A lively race underway for Annapolis mayor

Annapolis’ pre-Labor Day parade had the usual marching bands, dance troupes and city council members waving from antique convertibles. Then there was this guy strutting, skipping, and dancing down West Street, moving from side to side to shake a hand or grab a hug.

Just as he stole the show that day, Australia-born Gavin Buckley has injected the race for Annapolis mayor with a spark rarely seen in city elections.

"I feel like I have a passion to take the city forward and effect some change," Buckley said. "Not just talk about it."

Buckley, 54, is an entrepreneur credited with driving a nest of drug dealers and prostitutes from a main Annapolis thoroughfare.

"We like to say we’ve turned a red light district into an arts district," he said.

Buckley serves now as the showman in a four-way contest that also includes the 34-year-old incumbent, a 35-year veteran of the state legislature, and a long-shot late-comer who has taken on the role of chief scold. Each is driven by his own ambitions, but they share a frustration with the inefficiencies of city government.

Perhaps none feels that frustration more than Republican Mayor Mike Pantelides. In fact, he claims as his major accomplishment the ability to work with a city council that has a 7 to 2 Democratic majority.

"You know politics today is so divisive," Pantelides observed. And yet, he added, "we’ve got through some major legislation: passing four budgets without raising taxes. We’ve passed a lot of environmental initiatives."

He said his biggest disappointment is the time it takes to actually break ground on approved projects. He referred specifically to the upgrade of a water treatment plant--being figuratively held together with duct tape--that has taken more than three years to get started.

"I wish we could have done things quicker than we did," the mayor added. "Probably my biggest regret."

Nevin Young, 48, a local lawyer making his first foray into politics is the mayor’s lone opponent in the September 19 Republican primary. He says he is motivated by what he calls city government overreach.

"They do what they like because they are the government," Young complained. "That has become the entrenched bureaucratic attitude."

He also contends Pantelides was too slow to respond to problems within the city police department, though the mayor fired the long-time police chief earlier this year.

State Senator John Astle, 74, Buckley’s opponent in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, says he got into the race for mayor because he was frustrated by the lack of cooperation he has gotten from city leaders he was trying to help.

"I finally came to the realization that if I’m going to fix the city that I love I was going to have to drive the bus," the senator said.

Some have suggested that Astle was also prompted by his weak finishes in the last two state senate elections and prospects of a stronger challenge likely to come next year. But Astle, a former Marine helicopter pilot in Vietnam, denied that he is afraid of election defeat.

"Look I was shot down twice and wounded twice, I’m not afraid of very much," he said.

Handicappers say Astle’s name recognition and the strong financial backing he’s drawn from fellow state legislators, lobbyists and the Democratic establishment make him a favorite in what is usually a low turn-out election.

Even so, as Gavin Buckley was parading through that youthful pre-Labor Day crowd, his backers were doing their best to boost voter turn-out by reminding folks of the date.

"September nineteenth," they chanted, "Primary, September nineteenth." But it wasn’t clear how many of them might be old enough to vote.