Mr. Cecil County: RIP, Nelson Bolender– An Appreciation
Nelson Bolender was a forgiving man.
From misbehaving teenagers who ran afoul of the principal of Elkton High to critics or foes in Cecil County politics, Nelson Bolender practiced the often lost art of being able to disagree without being disagreeable. He took some bold and at times controversial steps during his two terms as a County Commissioner but always did so with respect for those who did not support his positions. And most of those who disagreed with him respected him in return.
Name-calling, of the sort we have come to witness with all too frequent regularity in the past few years in county politics, was simply not in his vocabulary or personality. He was never one to hold a grudge, tally up an “enemies list,” or make allegations or unfounded accusations against political rivals.
In politics, he was a Democrat at a time when Democrats still dominated Cecil County elections. But he was never a partisan ideologue. He forged agreements with Republicans or independents if it was in the best interests of Cecil County. And even when Cecil County voters turned their back on him, he never turned his back on his beloved county.
Cecil County lost a unique figure in its modern history when Nelson Bolender died suddenly last Thursday 2/14/13 at the age of 77.
His two terms as president of the Cecil County Board of Commissioners marked a turning point in the county’s political history, moving from what many people around the state saw as a not-too-bright rural backwater– the locally reviled “Ceciltucky” image—to a growing community with leadership worthy of having a seat at the state policy-making table. He was the first Cecil County official to serve as president of the Maryland Association of Counties.
Bolender was first elected as a commissioner in 1998, after retiring from the county public school system in which he had been a middle school principal as well as principal at North East and Elkton High Schools. His experience dealing with sometimes rowdy students gave him a solid skill-set for handling the rough and tumble of Cecil County politics.
He was re-elected in 2002—at the time, a first in recent political history that saw most commissioners turned out to pasture by voters after one term. But he was defeated in the 2006 general election when he sought a third term.
Years of neglect of county roads and often lackluster support for the county school system changed on his watch. The county embarked on an ambitious program of road and bridge repairs that was still yielding ribbon-cutting ceremonies many years later for subsequently elected officials who had nothing to do with the tough decisions that had been made earlier to spend what was needed to rebuild basic services.
School funding, both for the public schools and Cecil College, increased dramatically on his watch and student performance and educational options improved as well. In 2006, Bolender supported calls by educators and the business community to include a new vocational/technical school in the county’s capital improvement plan. However, after his defeat for re-election in November, 2006, a subsequent Commissioners’ board removed the school from the capital plan in 2009.
A new vo-tech school is still unfinished business in Cecil County, as a 2012 proposal by the school system to explore the viability of locating a new school on the 91-acre Basell property north of Elkton was rejected by the then-ruling “Three Amigos” faction of the all-Republican Commissioners’ board.
During Bolender’s first term, the commissioners were a three-member panel, including fellow Democrat Phyllis Kilby and Republican Harry Hepbron. During his second term, the panel was expanded to five members under a change in state law that brought two additional members—Democrats Mark Guns and Bill Manlove—in mid-cycle elections in 2004.
Bolender and Hepbron were an odd political couple—the well-spoken educator (D) and the plain-spoken, often grammatically-challenged businessman/farmer(R). But they forged an alliance in their first term that brought about many changes in the county and they took the political heat for raising property taxes to pay for road and school improvements at times when the overall economy was better than today.
[UPDATE: Other accomplishments included creation of the senior transit bus system, the Elkton Station campus of Cecil College, attracting the IKEA distribution center and many jobs, two upgrades in the county’s bond rating, and creation of a new emergency communications system
[UPDATE: “I loved Nelson. We trusted each other,” Hepbron told Cecil Times. He recounted how Bolender would kick his leg under the table at meetings if he thought Hepbron was taking the wrong path on an issue. “And sometimes I made his leg black and blue, too, if I thought he needed to take a different approach,” Hepbron said with a laugh. “I will miss him terribly.”]
One enduring legacy of that era was the decision to hire Al Wein as the county’s administrator. The widely respected Wein was recently named as the Director of Administration under the new Charter government by County Executive Tari Moore.
Wein had been the county’s planning director for seven years, when “I got the call and [Bolender] asked me” to be the county administrator, Wein recalled. “It took all of about one minute of thought to say yes.”
At the time, county government offices were spread out over multiple cramped locations in Elkton. Wein recalled one time when the Commissioners “stuffed me into a closet” when they were having a meeting with outside officials—so he could hear what was going on but not be seen. “We had some good times and some funny moments,” Wein said. “Nelson was a gentleman and I respected him immensely.”
One of the most controversial decisions initiated by Bolender was the move to consolidate county government in one location and to build a new county government complex near the Delaware line off Route 40. At the time, there were strong objections from Elkton businesspeople concerned that moving the offices out of downtown Elkton would hurt their interests and some citizens’ groups objected to the costs.
But now, especially with the recent shift to Charter government, that decision can be seen as prescient, and one which prepared the county for its future. Keeping the county offices spread around multiple locations would have done little if anything to stem the tide of deterioration and criminal activity that has long plagued downtown Elkton, especially in evening hours when government offices are closed. And the downturn in the economy—and tightened county budgets—would have made the move impossible now, just as the need for a consolidated local government facility is at its greatest with the shift to Charter and the installation of a County Executive to direct the day-to-day operations of the county.
Bolender always had a sense of humor, so it was not without some laughable moments when he defeated a rival in the 2006 Democratic primary who advocated holding camel races in the county as an economic development initiative. But the political climate had clearly changed, along with shifts in the economy, when he lost his bid for a third term to Republican Rebecca Demmler.
Demmler had been a local activist and wrote a newsletter that was critical of county government in general and Bolender in particular. But once in office, she learned that things look different on the ‘inside’ of government and “experience is the best teacher.”
“Nelson Bolender was very generous and I don’t think that man was capable of resentment,” Demmler told Cecil Times. But “past campaigns or political goings-on and Democrat vs. Republican are far removed from my thoughts,” she added.
“Along with everyone else, I was terribly shocked and dismayed at the sudden passing of this very giving and involved man. My memory of Mr. Bolender will always be with utmost respect and admiration of his deep involvement in his community and county. Anyone who met this man with a winning personality which included that genial, sincere smile and warm handshake, will remember him not only with admiration, but with affection,” Demmler said.
After leaving political office, Bolender continued to contribute to the county, serving on a number of volunteer boards and panels. He was the current president of the Cecil County Board of Elections, a post to which he was appointed by the governor.
He also served as chairman of the Bainbridge Development Corporation board that has been trying for years to re-develop the site of the former Navy training center near Port Deposit. However, in December, 2011, the Three Amigos faction of the Commissioners refused to reappoint Bolender to the Bainbridge board.
Bolender had some run-ins with the “Smipkin” group—centered around state Del. Michael Smigiel and E.J. Pipkin (R-36)—over local ‘impact fees’ or special taxing districts to try to recover some of the costs of providing local services to new housing developments. Bolender supported the proposal while the Smipkins strongly opposed it. The Three Amigos Commissioners’ faction was strongly aligned with the Smipkins.
But Nelson Bolender was a forgiving man. He bore no grudges or chips on his shoulder. And when we say goodbye to the man who brought Cecil County into the modern era– and made difficult choices with dignity, intelligence and grace– we can try to follow his example, and simply say, “Thank you, Nelson—job well done.”
Funeral services for Nelson Bolender will be held on Tuesday at 11 a.m. at Elkton United Methodist Church, 219 East Main Street, Elkton. (Visitation will be on Monday 2/18/13 from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Hick’s Home for Funerals, 103 West Stockton Street, Elkton.)