It’s a late afternoon in September on Homewood Parkway in Kensington, Md. Jeremiah Sullivan, 71, wearing green sweatpants and sporting a couple of days’ growth, opens his front door to find Montgomery County Council member Phil Andrews.
“So you’re running for county executive? Is Ike still in there?” Sullivan asks, referring to County Executive Isiah Leggett.
He is, Andrews says.
“Wow, you have a tough row to hoe.”
“You’ll have a clear choice,” Andrews says.
For several hours almost every day since January, this has been Andrews’s routine — and the core of his grass-roots campaign for Montgomery County executive. By his count, he’s approached about 13,000 doorsteps to make his pitch, enduring bad weather, yapping dogs and residents who wonder if he’s handing out religious tracts. He hopes to reach 30,000 doors before the June Democratic primary.
He figures to be heavily outspent by the two big dogs in the race, Leggett, the two-term incumbent, and Doug Duncan, who held the job for the 12 preceding years. That fundraising gap will be widened by Andrews’s career-long policy of refusing campaign contributions from political action committees and real estate developers.
The next financial report isn’t due until early 2014, but the most recent filing, in January, showed Leggett with $418,815 cash on hand from past campaigns, and Duncan with $243,314. Andrews had $53,255, a balance that he said is now up to about $100,000.
Andrews said he’s hiring a campaign manager but that the rest of his organization is strictly volunteer. There will be no pollster, no media consultant and all direct mail will be designed by his wife, Staci, a graphic artist.
Andrews said he believes he can win with relentless personal outreach and the word-of-mouth it generates. It’s the same strategy that helped him oust incumbent William Hanna for the District 3 County Council seat he’s held since 1998. Andrews also likes to point out that Leggett was outspent by fellow council member Steve Silverman in the 2006 executive’s race.
“People talk to other people,” said Andrews, who is a youthful 54 with Boy Scout manners and has a more-than-passing resemblance to NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams. “And what influences people about local elections is what they hear directly from the candidates or from people they trust.”
Andrews’s message is a socially liberal, fiscally conservative mix of reformism, with a legislative record that includes leading or collaborating in the effort for smoke-free restaurants, a “living wage” that pays employees of county contractors above the legal minimum, tighter regulation of the disability retirement system and opposition to labor contracts, negotiated by Duncan and Leggett, that provided salary increases he regarded as excessive and unsustainable.
That last stance in particular has antagonized a key Democratic constituency — the county’s public employee unions, which have tried without success to unseat him.
Andrews is betting that after 20 consecutive years of Duncan and Leggett, there is a significant constituency for change. In his fourth council term, he hardly qualifies as a fresh face. But he promises a new agenda, including a more aggressive posture with Annapolis on reclaiming the county’s share of tax dollars, coupled with tax relief to help make the county more affordable for residents and attractive to business.
Council colleagues and other members of the county’s political class, many of whom like and admire Andrews, view his candidacy as quixotic at best. Several council members who looked seriously at the race pulled back when Leggett decided to seek a third term.
“I very thoughtfully and carefully considered running for county executive” said council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large). “The preponderance of opinion was that Ike Leggett will be re-elected. I did not see a path to victory for anybody running against Ike Leggett.”
Council member Valerie Ervin (D-Eastern County), who also explored a run, was more blunt, describing Andrews as “a pretty awesome guy” but calling his door-to door approach “a ridiculous notion.”
“He’s going out right now eight, nine months before the primary,” she said. “No one pays any attention until it’s right on top of you. It’s just silly.”
The skepticism hasn’t stopped Andrews from keeping a blistering pace. He’s targeted households with the most likely 2014 Democratic voters — the 100,000 or so who came out for at least one of the last two non-presidential primaries in 2006 and 2010. Either directly or by word of mouth, he hopes to reach 30 percent of them.
Working weekdays in the late afternoons and early evenings, and often all day Saturday and Sunday, Andrews said he can do about 15 houses an hour. Where there is no one home — which is roughly half the time — he leaves a piece of literature, signed and inscribed: “Sorry I missed you.” He’s so far covered parts of Wheaton, Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Glen Echo, Cabin John, Silver Spring and Germantown.
On this September afternoon, he’s in Precinct 13-31, where Leggett won 56.5 percent of the vote in 2006. Along Drumm Avenue, Homewood Parkway and Plyers Mill Road, many of the original smallish but sturdy post-World War II homes remain and are attracting young couples with children.
It’s also Andrews’s old neighborhood, where some longtime residents still remember him as the kid who threw the newspaper when he was a student at Albert Einstein High School.
He was Phil Levchenko then, a name he legally changed after graduation, he said, because he tired of having it misspelled or mispronounced. He took the new last name from his father, Andrew, a retired CIA analyst. It was around the same that his parents gave him a membership to Common Cause for his 18th birthday. Later, after earning a bachelor’s degree at Bucknell University and a master’s in governmental administration from the University of Pennsylvania, he spent six years (1988-94) as director of Common Cause Maryland.
Andrews dresses informally when he works a neighborhood — polo shirt and khakis — to avoid telegraphing the idea that he’s an IRS agent, a salesman or some other kind of unwelcome caller. He is patient, unfailingly attentive and possessed with a bottomless capacity for neighborly chitchat. (“The challenge is being in the moment all the time,” he said.) He lets voters lead the conversation with their concerns.
For Richard and Carol Knott, a retired couple, it is the traffic on Plyers Mill Road, which is plagued by speeders. Andrews pronounces the street a good candidate for speed cameras and says that as chairman of the council’s public safety committee, he’ll look into it.
He stays for a half-hour — way long, by his usual standards — but the Knotts knew him from his paper boy days, and he was looking for connections to spread the word.
“Did you have a daughter named Sherry?” he asks.
Yes, says Richard, she lives in Laytonsville. They tell Andrews they’ll be glad to mention that he stopped by.
Back outside, Andrews is pleased. He rates every voter contact on a 1-to-5 scale, 1 being favorable. This was a 1-plus.
“The key thing was they said they would talk you up with their daughter,” Andrews says.
He also stops by the home of Chuck Beard, a former county official he’s known for years. After they commiserate over the quality of the state legislative delegation, Andrews asks Beard, a registered independent, to switch to the Democratic Party so he can vote in the June primary.
“I would consider that,” Beard says. “I could do that for you.”
Over on Homewood Parkway, Margot Collins, 90, a retired violinist, is a tougher sell. She is standing in her driveway when she sees Andrews coming up the sidewalk and tries to make it inside before he calls to her by name.
He introduces himself and talks about his record.
“Couldn’t understand a word you said,” Collins says.
“I’m running for county executive.”
“So what do you want me to do?”
Andrews tries talking about his sponsorship of the smoke-free restaurant bill in 2003.
“What about the people who like to smoke? You’re going to lose them,” Collins says.
He stays with it, and she starts to warm up as Andrews talks about the need to make the county more economically competitive and more affordable.
Collins points toward her house and says she “probably wouldn’t be able to buy it now.”
She sounds favorable but wonders whether she’ll be around in June.
“I think you’ll be around,” Andrews says.
One of the day’s last stops is his boyhood home, in the 3000 block of Plyers Mill Road. The house is now owned by a middle-aged Hispanic couple, Rene Terceros and Juana Vasquez. He’s visited with them before, and they hit it off. They talk about the neighborhood and Vasquez invites him to bring his family to show them the place.
She also says she was talking him up with her friends.
“You be the winner,” she tells him. “Make some change.”