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  •   Upstart Challenges County Executive

    Norman Hoffman stands before National Guard Armory in Silver Spring.
    Norman Hoffman stands before National Guard Armory in Silver Spring. (Michael Williamson / TWP)
    By Michael E. Ruane
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, June 13, 1998; Page C01

    Norman Hoffman is standing in the strategy room of his campaign headquarters, wearing his green T-shirt from a New Jersey Dodge dealer and railing about what a lousy job the incumbent "youngster" has done as Montgomery County executive.

    On his desk is a secondhand, pea-green Royal typewriter he got for 20 bucks at a Lions Club rummage sale. On the bare walls of the $450-a-month, three-room suite in downtown Silver Spring are maps of the county legislative districts.

    There is no fax, no computer, and two phones, which are not ringing.

    So what, says Hoffman, a 79-year-old widower who lives in the Leisure World retirement community. Somebody's got to take on the current executive, 42-year-old Douglas M. Duncan (D). Besides, he says, "I'm handsome and capable."

    Sitting in the corner on one of the eight folding chairs Hoffman bought for the campaign is his friend Barbara Bernard 64, rolling her eyes.

    Hoffman, a former urban revitalization consultant, former operator of a men's clothing business, and amateur abstract painter, can be a bit of a cutup.

    But he says he is seriously challenging the widely known and amply funded Duncan in the September Democratic primary. In heavily Democratic Montgomery County, this is the deciding race.

    So far, he's the only challenger.

    No matter that Duncan netted $200,000 at one fund-raiser last fall, and Hoffman has but a few hundred in donations from family and friends. No matter that Duncan announced his reelection bid last week with balloons and fanfare, and Hoffman's chief outreach is the campaign placard fixed with magnets to the roof of his beige Ford.

    And no matter that the strapping Duncan stands a robust 6-feet-4, while Hoffman is a lean 5-feet-9, and recently had a brush with prostate cancer.

    "I expect to beat Doug Duncan," he says. "Make no mistake about it."

    Indeed, Hoffman has challenged Duncan to a walking race in Leisure World or "anywhere he wants," boasting that the 240-pound county executive will "fall out after a few blocks." A Duncan spokesman says the executive prefers to keep the contest on the issues.

    For six years in the early 1980s, Hoffman was the small-business representative in the county's office of community and economic development. He acknowledges that he backed Duncan when Duncan was elected in 1994.

    And he admits he was disappointed later when he didn't get a job with Duncan's administration.

    But he says he is opposing Duncan now chiefly because he believes the county's $321 million redevelopment plan for downtown Silver Spring is misguided. He says, as a World War II veteran, he is outraged by the plan's proposed demolition of Silver Spring's 1927 armory.

    In interviews this week, Hoffman described an alternative, if somewhat fanciful, plan that would preserve the armory and calls for the construction of a world-class concert hall, an aquarium, an ice-skating palace and a 70- to 80-story tall Holocaust memorial.

    Elsewhere, he said, he would like to see a Shakespearean theater in Germantown, an outdoor music venue in Gaithersburg and a minor league baseball park in Burtonsville.

    "This'll take work," he says. "But I think I can inspire people."

    Friends and family have urged him not to run.

    "He came over and had lunch with Phoebe and me a few months ago," said Charles W. Gilchrist, a former county executive and Hoffman friend who is now an Episcopal priest. "We really tried to talk him out of it. He doesn't need this. For his own good, I wish he'd just let it go."

    Hoffman says his children said the same thing. He told them: "I don't tell you how to live your life, and you're not going to tell me how to live my life."

    Hoffman was born in 1918 in Baltimore. His family moved to Washington in the 1930s and ran a series of small businesses.

    He entered the service four days after the attack on Pearl Harbor -- he still keeps a tiny copy of his discharge papers in his wallet -- and served in the Army Air Forces in the South Pacific.

    He came home with sergeant's stripes, the good conduct medal and an Australian war bride named Valda. They had three children and four grandchildren before she died in 1993.

    In the 1960s, Hoffman and his brothers ran a men's clothing business in Northeast Washington. After that, he became a revitalization consultant with the National Center for Urban Ethnic Affairs, a nonprofit research organization based in Washington.

    Hoffman is an amiable, loquacious man -- "I talk a lot, I know" -- who will grab your arm or poke your shoulder as he tells a story. His friend Bernard, whom he met last year at a $3 brunch in Leisure World, prompts him gently: "Norman, just answer the questions."

    He is a vigorous 79. "I don't look my age," he says. Bernard quips: "He doesn't act it either."

    Four years ago, Hoffman says, he handed out literature for Duncan along the "gauntlet," a busy sidewalk where many of Leisure World's thousands of residents receive pamphlets on Election Day.

    "This year," Hoffman says, "I'll be doing it for me."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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