Montgomery neighborhood could have a powerful grip on county council

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 19, 2010

Montgomery County stretches across a diverse terrain of more than 495 square miles. But if political wisdom in the heavily Democratic county holds, four of nine County Council members will live within three miles of one another by year's end.

Three council members already do, right along the Takoma Park-Silver Spring border.

Hans Riemer, a Silver Spring political organizer, joined three neighborhood incumbents in winning Democratic nominations in Tuesday's primary. If the four are victorious come November -- as many assume they will be in a county where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2 to 1 -- their tree-lined patch of Montgomery north of the District line will deepen its remarkable grip on local government power.

It would be as if 193 of the House of Representatives' 435 members lived in an area smaller than Connecticut, prompting some in Montgomery to raise questions about fairness and the appearance of favoritism. The area is home to District 5 council member Valerie Ervin and two at-large incumbents, George Leventhal and Marc Elrich, who won countywide primaries Tuesday. Riemer also ran countywide.

But Leventhal, a former legislative director for Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D) and a Takoma Park resident for a quarter-century, said he has put major miles on his Mercury Mariner hybrid working for constituents and campaigning across Montgomery.

"If the voters countywide felt they wanted a different mix of residencies for the at-large members, they had the opportunity to cast their votes as they saw fit," Leventhal said. "Nobody forced them to choose three guys from the same neighborhood."

On one end of Montgomery's equivalent to Pennsylvania Avenue is Leventhal's midsize home with a fenced yard and a blue-and-white campaign sign out front. On the other end is a two-story brick home across from Sligo Creek Elementary School where Ervin, a former member of the Board of Education, lives. At-Large incumbent Elrich and newcomer Riemer live on side streets along the way.

On a three-mile walk start to finish through the quartet's base Thursday, few of those headed home from the Takoma Metro station or watching a football practice from the sidelines knew they were in the midst of such a concentration of county authority. And some didn't much care.

"I have no expectations. Let's put it that way," said Glenn Trivers, a postal carrier watching a helmeted group of kids tackle a yellow dummy at Takoma Park Middle School on Piney Branch Road not far from Leventhal's home. Trivers was among about 20 percent of Montgomery voters who turned out Tuesday. He said he voted for Gov. Martin O'Malley and a school board member whose name sounded familiar but couldn't remember whether he selected any of the council candidates.

But head further along Piney Branch and make a left at the large potholes on the way toward Riemer's house, and there was some recognition of the benefits of living in Montgomery's local corridor of power.

"It's knowing these folks. They live where you live. They understand what issues you have," said Ed Bordley, a federal government lawyer. "You run into them every day, and you feel like you can say, 'How about this issue? What about getting a light down here at the school so the kids can cross Piney Branch Road safely?' "

Bordley, who is blind and was walking home with his German shepherd guide dog, Kaleb, said he loves the location not far from Metro, the tomatoes from his neighbors and the nearby church that serves as his faith-based hub of activism on social issues, which includes promoting affordable housing. And he thinks the nature of the community is such that it wouldn't abuse its outsized influence. "I'd like to think we have the interests of the rest of the county at heart," Bordley said.

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