Stark differences in top Democratic candidates for Montgomery County Council

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 7, 2010; B01

Royce Hanson was born to an unwed mother at a church mission in Oklahoma City in 1931.

He was adopted as an infant and at age 7 moved with his new family to a log cabin in an impoverished corner of northwestern Arkansas, not far from where the founding family of Wal-Mart would get its start.

Craig Rice arrived to a much different world. It was 1972, Roberta Flack topped the Billboard chart, and his parents drove him from a District hospital to a modest single-family home in suburban Montgomery County.

The two men, with starkly different histories and professional experiences, are the leading Democratic candidates in a race for the sole Montgomery County Council seat with no incumbent running.

Rice gave up a chance to run for a second term in Maryland's House of Delegates to try to represent a sprawling district that covers more than half of the 495-square-mile county. Hanson ended his second stint as chairman of the county's planning board this year -- his first began in 1972 -- and jumped into an already crowded contest.

At stake in the Sept. 14 primary is a choice between generations of leadership, personal styles and governing philosophies that pit Hanson's decades of experience and expansive thinking against Rice's deal-making skills and political pragmatism.

Although the two men began life more than 40 years and 1,300 miles apart, their introduction to community work started in the same place: in homes with challenges and outward-looking parents.

Hanson's father served in World War I and had a fourth-grade education but made his way onto the school board in Arkansas (after another member drove his Model T into a ditch). In Oklahoma, Chester Hanson had helped with local campaigning and became a deputy county clerk responsible for court and land records -- the type of documents that would underlie his son's eventual work shaping land use.

Hanson's mother, Ila Mae, rallied other mothers in Arkansas to improve living conditions. "All the kids in the school drank from a common dipper in a single bucket," Hanson said, and the children kept getting each other sick. "By the second year we were there, every kid had his own tin cup."

Ila Mae also started a campaign to rid their tiny community of a bedbug infestation, persuading women to embrace a mattress-burning campaign. A Works Progress Administration mattress factory in a nearby town provided cotton and covers and allowed them to make their own replacements.

"She really was quite a remarkable woman. Watching her move and watching Dad deal with various issues got me very interested in public life and in politics," Hanson said. His father's work ethic and easy manner left an imprint.

"He was just really a very good, friendly man who was generally regarded as the best thing that happened to his boss," Hanson said. "He met people well. He had a very good sense of humor. And he was, in a very quiet way, I think, quite persuasive and charming."

Rice, 37, is the grandson of sharecroppers from Round O, S.C., where his mother, Vivian Elaine, was one of 15 brothers and sisters.

He grew up in Montgomery's Layhill Village community near Aspen Hill and remembers watching his parents help bring together neighbors opposed to widening Layhill Road. He also saw his mother rebound from a violent family tragedy by pushing a broader legal fight she believed would protect others.

His aunt, Mildred Horn, cousin Trevor, and a nurse were murdered just down the road from Rice's family home in 1993. "My mother was actually the one who found the bodies that day," he said.

Prosecutors said the man convicted of the killings relied on a how-to guide called "Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors," published by Colorado publishing house Paladin Press. His mother later joined family members to sue Paladin in a case that pitted victims' rights against freedom of speech. The publishing house's insurance company decided to settle with the family, and Paladin stopped publishing the guide.

"My mother said, 'There's a book out there, how to be a hit man, that's instructing people how to kill people!' " Rice recalled. "Here my mother was, already going though the trauma of losing a sister that way, but then to also say, 'I want to protect others.' Millie and Trevor were gone. The book would only hurt others."

"When I look at the courage of my mother -- I get a lot from my parents, when it comes to seeing what they went through," Rice said. His father, Moses, had been a Marine fighting in Da Nang, and they found their own path through an era of racial inequality to "continuously fight for what was right."

"It made me understand how I needed to do the same. It wasn't just for my family; I also wanted to make sure I did it for my community," Rice said.

Adapting to change

Hanson, 79, trained artillery-targeting instructors while serving in the Army in the mid-1950s and moved to Montgomery County in 1959. He earned a PhD in public administration and a law degree from American University and has spent half a century working on the problems of local government in Montgomery and around the country as an academic and planner.

Rice graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in computer science in 2003 and became a senior sales manager at one of the premier Marriott hotels in the Bethesda-based national chain. He resigned to run for state delegate and has served since 2007. While in the legislature, he worked as a business development consultant for the government of Puerto Rico and now sells insurance and bonds.

Montgomery's upcounty council district (District 2) stretches across the county's north and west, covering Germantown, large planned subdivisions such as Montgomery Village and rural communities including Barnsville. Also running in the Democratic primary are consultant Sharon Dooley, information technology specialist Charles Kirchman, and Eddie Kuhlman, president of the Commissioners of Poolesville. Republican activist Robin Ficker is the GOP nominee.

Driving Hanson's bid for a seat on the council is a question he has wrestled with for decades, including in a 2003 book.

"Why is it so difficult for local governments to adapt to the kinds of changes that the world is undergoing?" Hanson asked, including broad demographic shifts in where people live and the jobs they do, and upheavals driven by new technology.

His answer: Government officials in certain places tend to lock themselves into particular ways of solving problems, which can stunt their effectiveness. "Trying to figure out how you do things differently, and how you introduce into these deep civic and political cultures new ways of thinking, is the real conundrum," Hanson said. Drawing in diverse voices to create a "yeasty" center of ideas and action is a key, he said.

He has been successful at shaking things up in the past.

In the 1960s, he was a key advocate of reforming Montgomery's constitution, or charter, to create an elected county executive. Previously, county managers had been appointed by the County Council, but his efforts paid off in 1970 when the first election was held. Hanson is also regarded as the father of Montgomery's vast agricultural reserve, where home building was sharply limited to save farmland and concentrate development elsewhere. In recent years, his focus has been on directing growth near an expanding transit system and trying to protect the park system.

Rice has emphasized his collegial approach and the political contacts he has built up in Annapolis at a time when the General Assembly could foist large new financial burdens on localities such as Montgomery, including costs associated with teacher pensions.

Rice said he was drawn from community activism to life in public office after concluding that bringing disparate interests together to get things done is something "that's actually in my skill set. I'm good at that." He showed that approach as a state delegate, he said, by engineering a successful legislative effort to address the soaring costs of college textbooks and building support to pass an anti-bullying bill.

"I've got more relationships than anyone else who's in this race," Rice said. He has been endorsed by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and points to close ties with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and Montgomery Del. Sheila E. Hixson (D), chairwoman of the House's powerful ways and means committee.

"District 2 needs somebody who's going to be an effective leader, not just someone who wants to serve," Rice said. "The only person who would be an effective leader is me."

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