PAC Digs Into Debate on Growth, With Teeth

At the Montgomery County executive's ball in December, newly elected Executive Isiah Leggett (D) with Jessica Warnick and Isabel Delapyente. He ran on a slow-growth platform.
At the Montgomery County executive's ball in December, newly elected Executive Isiah Leggett (D) with Jessica Warnick and Isabel Delapyente. He ran on a slow-growth platform. (By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)
By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 11, 2007

Montgomery County Council member George L. Leventhal came loaded like a prosecutor to cross-examine two of the leading players in a group that has for the past year mocked him and other elected officials as being puppets for the development industry.

The targets of his interrogation at a recent public meeting: a retired actor from Bethesda and a telecommunications consultant from Rockville, who represent the evolution of civic activism into a politically charged operation with an edge.

Their all-volunteer political action committee, Neighbors for a Better Montgomery, campaigned vigorously last fall for County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and a new slow-growth majority on the council that intends to tighten controls on development. The group also helped frame the debate that the council is beginning about how and where Montgomery should grow.

NeighborsPAC sought to dislodge Leventhal (D-At Large), who was first elected as part of a pro-growth slate in 2002, but he survived.

Lingering tensions boiled over last month in a heated exchange between Leventhal and Drew Powell and Jim Humphrey, two leaders of the group, which has created a database of developers' campaign donations and says that such contributions can have undue influence on policy decisions.

From the dais of the council auditorium, Leventhal suggested that the group's aim is to shut down growth, which he said is at odds with the wishes of most county residents. Leventhal quoted from Leggett's inaugural address and accused the group of engaging in what the county executive said he hopes to end: a "permanent political campaign and gotcha politics."

Powell shot back, saying that NeighborsPAC "reported fact." He challenged Leventhal to dispute the group's findings, but Council President Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County) intervened to end the exchange.

To admirers, NeighborsPAC is a watchdog, fighting to ensure that the voices of residents -- not just those of paid business interests -- are heard by government officials elected to represent them. Leggett and others who have benefited from the group's backing credit the PAC's leaders with translating eye-glazing policy decisions into tangible effects on taxpayers, the roads they drive and the schools their children attend.

"They made it easier for the average citizen to understand," Leggett said. "That helped create the atmosphere that I think led voters to make the decisions they made."

NeighborsPAC critics say its tactics are akin to those of national political parties and that it unfairly accuses politicians of making decisions based on inflated assumptions in the PAC's database about what counts as a development interest. Some critics have debated how much influence the group had in the election.

Former council member Steven A. Silverman, who lost to Leggett in the Democratic primary, said that NeighborsPAC members might have reflected the public mood, but "I don't think they created the mood."

The group of self-described eccentrics has its beginnings in 2002. Then-council member Blair Ewing brought together community leaders to create a broad-based political action committee with campaign activities to rival those of development and business interests.

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