Judith Scioli, former editor of the Potomac Almanac and press secretary to County Executive Neal Potter (D) and then to Gov. Paris Glendening (D), died on Jan. 19 at Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia at the age of 59 after a 2 1/2-year battle with breast cancer.
Those who knew Scioli recalled her dedication to fairness and clarity, as a reporter and editor with the Potomac Almanac, then in the politics of Montgomery County and the State of Maryland.
“She treated everyone with respect and dignity,” said Judi Scioli’s son Anthony Scioli, an attorney living in Lincoln, Neb. “She touched so many different lives, not just governors, but congressional staff, her secretaries and her coworkers and staff as well.”
“I cannot tell you how special she was,” said Mary Kimm, publisher of the Connection Newspapers, who was hired by Scioli as a reporter for The Potomac Almanac in 1989. “If you met her for five minutes, you would know you were in the presence of someone who was going to make a difference.”
GENE LYNCH, WHO worked with Scioli under Potter and later with Scioli under Glendening, recalled an early 1990s budgetary discussion with Potter and Scioli, then Potter’s press secretary.
“How do you explain all the manifestations of $3 billion that reporters can write?” Lynch asked.
“In about four sentences, she summed up what we had been saying for about four hours,” Lynch said.
“Budget issues are complicated and boring,” Potter said. “She made them understandable and interesting.”
Del. Jean Cryor (R-15) said she was in competition with Scioli for nearly two decades, first as a newspaper editor (Cryor headed the Potomac Gazette), then as a politician in a different political party. Even as a competitor, Cryor said she had great admiration great fondness for Scioli and her abilities. “Everybody who knew her liked her and wanted to be with her.”
“Judi had it figured out,” said Lynch. “She knew who she was and what she believed, and she knew why.”
Scioli was born in Philadelphia, and received her bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of Pennsylvania, then her master's degree in linguistics from Florida State University. She moved from Chicago to Rockville, and her sons attended Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda. Scioli began her career as a reporter for the Potomac Almanac in 1980. By the early 1990s, she was vice president for editorial of Connection Newspapers, parent company of the Potomac Almanac.
SCIOLI UNDERSTOOD the importance of local issues and local people.
“She always made you feel good about what was going on in the community,” said Elie Pisarra-Cain of Potomac. “Anything I was interested in, she would always take the ball and run with it.”
“I knew her as an editor who had true beliefs and a need for focused community coverage,” Cryor said. “She was aware that covering a meeting such as West Montgomery was as important to her readers as the coverage of something happening on the presidential level. She believed quality carried itself.”
Esther Gelman was a member of County Council in Scioli’s early years with The Almanac. “I think she was as fair as she could be,” Gelman said. “She wasn’t looking for dirt. She was looking for her story, and she wanted her story straight. … I think she was a real professional, a class lady and a great reporter.”
“She was a class act … the way she stuck to the truth and persevered to get to the truth. It’s a feature of journalism that’s not as prevalent as it used to be,” said Gail Ewing, county councilmember from 1989-98.
“She adored the eye-catching headline, loved to write them, loved to remember them, and could recite them to you,” Cryor said.
GELMAN THOUGHT highly enough of Scioli that she recommended
her to Neal Potter, then Montgomery County Executive, who sought a press secretary. “I said, ‘Neal, hire Judy; everybody respects her,” Gelman recalled.
Potter interviewed Scioli at the home of Gene Lynch, then Potter’s chief of staff. Scioli accepted the position as Montgomery County’s Director of Public Information in 1992, though originally with reservations, said Gelman.
“When you’re a journalist, you’re reluctant to be a press agent,” Gelman said. “She did beautifully with him. … She didn’t have to give it a slant and spin it to the right wing or the left wing.”
“She was always working to listen to each and every side of a position,” said her son Anthony Scioli. “Not just listen but understand what they were saying, and how they were saying it.”
“The job was to get the facts out in an understandable manner,” Potter said. “That’s a very useful service, to get them out to the public. … I was very grateful to her for taking it on.”
SCIOLI SERVED as press secretary for former University of Maryland chancellor Don Langenberg, before accepting a position as press secretary for Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening (D) in 1995.
“She brought those same beliefs of quality carrying the day as she had back here in Potomac,” Cryor said. “As the press secretary, she was open and agreeable and kind and thoughtful, which is not necessarily what one expects in a press secretary.
Cryor recalled Scioli preparing the building for a visit from President Bill Clinton, who was going to attend a bill signing in Annapolis. “She recognized the importance of the president coming, and was doing all she could to make it be very special, yet put it in the proper context … that we all kept our dignity.”
“The second floor of the Governor’s office is an intense place,” said Lynch, who also became part of the Glendening Administration as the Governor’s chief of staff.
Scioli worked for Glendening until 1998 when she accepted a position as director of communications for the Maryland Port Authority. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 2002, but kept working full-time through April 2003. “On most days, I was lucky enough to tough it out,” Scioli wrote in a 2003 letter to The Almanac.
“You’ve got to have a lot of respect for people like Judy that went through this. … You’ve got to keep getting up,” Lynch said.
However, Scioli was fired from her position in May 2003 along with other Democratic state government appointees removed by the administration of Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R).
“As a member of the Executive Service of the State of Maryland, I do not have the rights that employees have who serve in other job categories. I understand this. I can be fired for no reason,” Scioli wrote in the 2003 letter to The Almanac. “It may be perfectly within the law to fire a disabled person who is working hard and doing a good job, but few would say it is ethical, knowing the severe challenge it poses for such a person to obtain vital health insurance and to pursue another job.”
“Even when she was dying, in her last few weeks, she was asking about other people,” said her son Anthony Scioli. She asked out of genuine care and concern for those around her, as she had all her life, Anthony said.
Scioli spent many of her later months working on a novel based on her experience as an appointee in Maryland’s state government. Lynch believes he knows some of the themes Scioli wanted to convey with the book: “Don’t be so quick to criticize,” Lynch said. “Take the time and energy to understand it.”
SCIOLI IS SURVIVED BY two children, Dr. Adam Scioli of Lafayette Hill, Pa. and Anthony Scioli of Omaha, Neb.; her brother Martin Nisenholtz of New York; her mother Rhoda Nisenholtz of Atlantic City, N.J.; two grandchildren; her companion Robert Barnett of Philadelphia. Her marriage to Frank Scioli ended in divorce.
“It seems like the world is a lot emptier for those of us who worked with her,” Cryor said. “She was very special to a great number of people.”
“She treated everybody with such kindness,” Ewing said. “She did an awful lot in the community.”