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Does Dave Russo have the prescription to beat Shank?

July 20, 2002|by BOB MAGINNIS

Before I interviewed Dave Russo, I was prepared to feel sorry for him. He'd just built up a nice little family pharmacy - Russo's RX - on Hagerstown's Cannon Avenue when CVS plunked a giant store halfway done the block. And his opponent in the District 2B delegate race - Christopher Shank - had already defeated him once in 1998.

But when I talked to Russo, I found him confident, not only about his business, but the political race to come.

No one would minimize the difficulty of defeating Shank, who knocked off Bruce Poole, who was just coming back into the legislative leadership's good graces after an unwise spat with House Speaker Cas Taylor. Shank is a worker who will go 15 rounds, politically speaking, to win this race.

Russo has ensured that he'll get past the primary by changing his party registration to Democrat, but says he didn't do it to survive the primary, but because he felt the Republican Party was drifting too far to the right.

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"The two big things I see about the current delegation is that they're not bringing enough money back into Washington County. That's one of my biggest priorities," he said.

He'd also like to see more consensus built between state lawmakers, the Hagerstown City Council and the Washington County Commissioners. The fact that the city felt it had to hire a lobbyist to look after its interests in Annapolis is one sign that change is needed, Russo said.

Another is the move to enact charter government, which would give the county government more power over matters now handled by the delegation. Russo said the skills he learned as the Maryland Board of Pharmacy president and in mediation training at the University of Baltimore School of Law would help him bring elected officials together.

"Based on my background and education, I have the ability to lead if the need requires," Russo said, but added that "I don't think it behooves the delegation to micro-manage the county commissioners."

Russo said that if elected he would seek a seat on the House Environmental Matters, which deals with health and environmental issues. "Smart Growth," Gov. Parris Glendening's initiative to curb sprawl development, is a concept he supports and said he believes the University of Maryland campus should be downtown.

"A revitalized City of Hagerstown is vital for the health of the whole county," Russo said.

He supports farmland preservation, he said, and to raise funds for it he would favor the proposal for a real-estate transfer tax - shot down by the delegation - over the excise tax that Shank proposed as an alternative.

"I think Maryland dairy farmers need to be subsidized, but I'm not sure about government buying up all the farmland," Russo said, adding that "this is a good example of an issue it's difficult to make a stand on until you've heard from all the different stakeholders."

Could you afford the time away from your own business to go to Annapolis for 90 days each session?

"It's the type of business where a pharmacist has to be present all the time," Russo said, but whether he would hire a relief pharmacist or take on another pharmacist as a full partner, he said he wasn't sure.

He likened his run for office to his persistence in business, despite the fact that since he opened, CVS has opened a larger store just down the street.

In such a situation, Russo said, "A lot of independents just fold up and close. To survive, you have to go the extra mile. I can have them in and out of here in 15 minutes."

As for politics, "It takes a lot to stand up and run for office in the first place. I see myself as lucky, because luck happens when preparation encounters opportunity. I think Chris is beatable."

Last time around, Russo admits he didn't get his message out and will have to do more door-to-door in the evenings and get a committee to help with that effort.

If you could accomplish only one thing during your first term, what would it be?

"The airport runway extension. It would have a tremendous beneficial effect for businesses in this county," Russo said.

How do you stand on the proposal to fund the educational improvements recommended by the Thornton Commission with revenues from slot machines at the state's horse tracks?

"I've wrestled with that. My gut impression is that it's not a good idea to fund education with a sin tax. But if I'm convinced that it won't hurt the people who can least afford it, there's every reason to have it," he said.

Russo is a refreshing candidate because he doesn't try to conceal the fact that he doesn't know everything about the crucial issues and that important insights will come from some of the people who are affected, like the Washington County farmers facing development pressure. But then there's Chris Shank, who I'll interview at the earliest possible opportunity.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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