Mayors Guided Council Elections

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 15, 2007

Neither of the mayors of Rockville and Gaithersburg was on the ballot last week, but Nov. 6 proved to be a winning day for both: Most of the candidates they endorsed in nonpartisan races were elected, and those they campaigned against were defeated. As a result, political observers say, neither city is likely to have a significant departure from recent policies and governing styles.

"In both cases, the mayors saw their choices ratified," said Cheryl Kagan, who represented both cities in the state House of Delegates from 1995 to 2003. "I think it showed that voters were relatively satisfied with the status quo."

In Gaithersburg, controversies surrounding illegal immigrant day laborers contributed to a hotly contested election with a crowded field of candidates, unprecedented campaigning by groups from outside of the city and a record high turnout. A face-off emerged between candidates endorsed by Mayor Sydney Katz, who was not up for reelection, and a slate pushed by One Gaithersburg, a coalition of liberal organizations and labor unions that sought a more ethnically diverse council to reflect the city's changing demographics.

In the end, the three council seats were picked up by the Katz-endorsed candidates: Cathy Drzyzgula, who had served on the city's day-laborer task force; Jud Ashman, a schools advocate; and Ryan Spiegel, a lawyer. Only one of the One Gaithersburg candidates won office, and that was Spiegel, who had been endorsed by both sides.

Drzyzgula said that although she supports the day-laborer center that Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) opened in the spring just over the city border, she also wants officials to enforce a new ban on soliciting workers on city streets. That law, which opponents say is unconstitutional, is under review by Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler (D).

Katz, who has served as mayor since 1998, said the outcome was not a referendum on the day-laborer controversy so much as a vote of confidence in the city's overall direction.

"I think the fact that we're debt-free and fiscally sound were very important," Katz said. "At the end of the day, I think people followed all of the issues and found a lot to approve of in the community."

Members of the One Gaithersburg effort said the city's recent struggle with the day-laborer issue was only one of the issues that spurred the involvement of liberal activists. As the minority population has grown in recent years, affordable housing, jobs and access to city services have emerged as central issues.

"One important focus of the effort was to help provide a voice for those who may feel disenfranchised," said Jon Gerson, director of community outreach for the Montgomery County Education Association, one of the groups that campaigned for the One Gaithersburg slate. "There's so much to celebrate in Gaithersburg right now; it's important to make sure everybody is invited to the party."

Katz and Drzyzgula said the efforts from outside of the city, which included endorsements and automated calls to voters from Leggett and other Maryland politicians, may have backfired. Both attributed the record high turnout in part to a sense of affront by some residents who resented what they saw as meddling.

"That was very unusual for us," Katz said. "People realized that Gaithersburg is a community that does not need that kind of outside influence to make decisions."

In Rockville, outgoing Mayor Larry Giammo also loomed large in the election. Giammo is retiring after three terms but campaigned hard for Susan Hoffmann, a two-term City Council member who defeated two challengers. Hoffmann, manager of marketing and communications at the county-operated Silver Spring Regional Services Center, had emerged as a key ally of Giammo's during a prolonged battle with the council over reducing trash collection from twice weekly to once a week.

The dispute turned public and ugly and, after the council finally passed a compromise measure, Giammo pointedly asked voters to toss out three of his council opponents in the fight, Robert Dorsey, Phyllis Marcuccio and Anne Robbins. Marcuccio and Robbins each won reelection, but Dorsey finished eighth in the field of 11 candidates and will not be returning for what would have been his eighth term.

Two newcomers were elected: Piotr Gajewski, director of the National Philharmonic, and John Britton, a lawyer.

"Giammo indicated very clearly whom he thought should be running our city, and he was able not only to help elect a mayor but defeat an incumbent," Kagan said. The result, she said, gives Hoffmann a chance to start her term without the conflicts that have marked recent city government relations. "Rather than infighting and backstabbing, the hope is that this mayor and council will work together on the issues that everyone campaigned on."

Hoffmann said she met with Marcuccio and Robbins after the election and that all pledged to bury the acrimony.

"I think we have a new majority on the council that is interested in moving forward, and I believe the two incumbents who were reelected are well aware of that," Hoffmann said. "There is certainly no tension on my end."

Hoffmann will test those relations almost immediately. She said she plans "fairly soon" to bring the trash collection issue back before the council.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company