In Montgomery, an uphill climb for upcounty council candidates

It’s only a half-mile from George Leventhal’s front door to the home of his neighbor and Montgomery County Council colleague Hans Riemer. Another colleague, Marc Elrich, lives about a mile away.

All three are at-large council members, elected countywide to represent all 1 million people who live in Montgomery County. They reside in Takoma Park, a city of 17,000 just over the District line in the county’s southeast corner. A fourth at-large member, Nancy Floreen, lives six miles away, in Garrett Park. (The other five council members are elected from districts.)

While it is a rarity to have three at-large council members from one city or town, their concentration in lower Montgomery is no anomaly. The area’s heavier population and culture of liberal activism have traditionally given the advantage to at-large candidates from downcounty. In the more rural and politically moderate north and west, challengers have struggled to build successful at-large campaigns.

Since 1974, just two at-large members of the council — John Menke of Barnesville (1974-78) and Michael Subin of Gaithersburg (1986-2006) — have been from upcounty, a region usually defined as the 250-square-mile swath of suburbia and farmland north of Shady Grove Road.

The incumbents, all of whom are running for reelection, said voters should judge them by their performance, not their Zip code. “I put a lot of miles on my car,” Leventhal said. Riemer said he listens “as closely to constituents in Germantown and Clarksburg as I do in Bethesda and Silver Spring.”

But some upcounty constituents don’t feel quite that plugged in. They see downcounty preoccupations over issues such as panhandling and restrictions on trans fats as of limited relevance in their own lives.

Upcounty dwellers complain about paying taxes for mass transit they’ve rarely seen, save for a few Ride-On buses.

They wonder why, as the county and state invest billions in the light-rail Purple Line to link Bethesda and New Carrollton, a long-promised rail project along Interstate 270, the Corridor Cities Transitway, exists only on paper. Same for the plan to extend the Mid-County Highway (M-83) from Montgomery Village to Clarksburg.

“A lot of times, our issues don’t get the necessary focus,” said Cherian Eapen, a Clarksburg resident and chair of the Upcounty Citizens Advisory Board, which makes recommendations to the council and county executive on spending and other matters. He said he was speaking for himself and not in his role as board chair.

About 300,000 people live upcounty — 30 percent of the county population — in hamlets such as Poolesville and Boyds and rapidly growing exurban communities such as Germantown, Gaithersburg and Clarksburg (The term upcounty is a bit of a misnomer since the region does not include the northeastern part of the county, which planners and politicians place in the midcounty region).

Craig Rice, president of the County Council, is one of them. He lives in Germantown and represents District 2, which encompasses most of upcounty, though parts of it also extend into District 1 (represented by Roger Berliner of downcounty Potomac) and District 4 (Nancy Navarro of Eastern Montgomery’s Silver Spring).

“Would it be helpful to have an at-large member that spends their home time in the upcounty area? Sure,” Rice said, emphasizing at the same time that he thinks his at-large colleagues do a good job representing his neighbors.

The lone Democrat from upcounty competing at-large in this June’s Democratic primary put it more strongly.

“We need more voices,” said Beth Daly, a Telemundo executive who lives in Dickerson, a community of about 800 houses near Sugarloaf Mountain and the Frederick County line. “Having somebody from upcounty on the council would do nothing but make for better policy down the road.”

There are multiple reasons for the downcounty dominance. Montgomery’s population is historically clustered around the Capital Beltway, making downcounty the wellspring of votes, activist energy and money.

Takoma Park in particular is legendary — and easily lampooned — for its robust and sometimes excruciating politically correct liberal activism.

The city is home to White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Labor Secretary Tom Perez, a former Montgomery Council member, and newly confirmed Deputy Treasury Secretary Sarah Bloom Raskin — wife of state Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D). Elrich served for 19 years on the Takoma Park City Council before he won his at-large county seat.

Aspiring candidates from Damascus, Boyds or Laytonsville enjoy no comparably deep reservoir of hometown voters, campaign workers, networks or donors.

It takes $100,000 to $200,000 to run a competitive at-large campaign, which must reach likely primary voters scattered across the vast and diverse jurisdiction.

Only a handful from upcounty have tried to raise that much cash. It’s cheaper to run for the statehouse.

Partisan and cultural differences widen the divide. Some residents say there is less focus on the role of local government upcounty, and a different attitude toward when and how elected officials and bureaucrats should intervene in local issues.

“Country ways are different,” said activist Caroline Taylor, who lives near Poolesville. “You have a problem with a neighbor, you tend to go on over and have a cup of coffee to talk about it.”

Upcounty — which includes the 93,000-acre Agricultural Reserve set aside for farming — tends to be more politically conservative, with Republicans in the majority in some precincts (countywide, Democrats outnumber Republicans 3 to 1).

But upcounty candidates running at-large must win not just in their own moderate communities, but also in the distinctly more liberal downcounty cities and towns.

“It’s a steep hill to climb,” said Chris Fiotes, a retired businessman from North Potomac who is one of two upcounty Republicans vying for an at-large nomination.

The top four primary vote-getters in each party compete in the at-large general election. So Fiotes, fellow North Potomac resident Adol Owen-Williams and the two GOP hopefuls from downcounty (Robert Dyer of Bethesda and Shelly Skolnick of Silver Spring) are all assured of a spot on November’s ballot. But as Republicans, their chance of winning a seat are slim.

Meanwhile, both Daly and her midcounty rival, retired Army nurse Vivian Malloy of Olney, must defeat a sitting at-large council member in order to compete in the general election.

One question this election cycle is whether dramatic shifts in the county’s population and demography could lessen the downcounty’s hold on the council.

Upcounty is home to Montgomery’s two fastest-growing communities, according to the 2010 census.

Germantown, which sits astride I-270 just north of Gaithersburg, added almost 20,000 residents between 2000 and 2010, pushing its population close to the 100,000 mark. Clarksburg gained 11,000 residents during that period, nearly five times its population in 2000.

Daly said she is hoping that the growth in the upcounty population will help her. And she has another potential — albeit small — advantage: Because the ballot lists candidates in alphabetical order, her name will be first in the at-large section on June 24.

When you’re from upcounty, you take any edge you can get.

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Agricultural Reserve .

Spopulation and demography

Still, “it’s a steep hill to climb,” said Chris Fiotes, a retired businessman running as a Republican from upcounty.

The other upcounty Republican in the race is Adol Owen-Williams of North Potomac

According to the most recent campaign finance reports,

Daly, an executive for Telemundo, has almost $100,000 in the bank, but more than half of it ($55,000) is from personal loans.

On the plus side, she’s being advised by Elrich, one of the Takoma Park trio, and also may receive some labor support.

And, because the ballot lists candidates in alphabetical order, she will be first in the at-large section.

When you’re from the upcounty, you take any edge you can get.

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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