Montgomery Council Race Heated
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 3, 1998; Page B01
With the balance of power at stake, a strong field of a dozen candidates has turned the race for four at-large seats on the Montgomery Council into one of the most competitive battles in the county this campaign season.
The field of contenders for seats on the powerful lawmaking body -- which represents 826,000 people and oversees a budget of more than $2 billion -- includes a former state senator, a current and former school board member and several other widely known political activists.
The race is so competitive that county political insiders consider just one of the candidates -- Isiah Leggett, the current council president -- as virtually certain to keep his seat. Just about everyone else, however, remains in contention for the remaining three spots.
"Even the people who follow council races closely are having a hard time handicapping this one," said Keith Haller, a Bethesda-based political analyst. "It's a high-quality field -- a Kentucky Derby-type field. And that, I think, is a testament to the growing importance of the council."
At issue in this race is the balance on a legislative body that will make key decisions during the next four years on issues such as development, taxes and spending in Montgomery County. The composition of this nine-member panel could help determine the success of County Executive Douglas M. Duncan's expected second term in office and his ability to advance his political agenda before a possible run for governor in 2002.
The current council is generally supportive of Duncan, but the county executive has won some important battles, including the approval of a controversial new county jail in Clarksburg -- by only a 5 to 4 margin.
Duncan (D), who faces several little-known challengers in his own reelection bid, is seeking to influence the council election by making endorsements and personal appearances, and he plans to use his campaign funds to pay for mailings on behalf of council candidates he supports.
Duncan is backing the two incumbents in the race, Democrats Leggett and Michael L. Subin, and he has endorsed Democratic challenger Benjamin Kramer, the owner of a carwash and tanning salon and the son of former county executive Sidney Kramer, a Duncan ally.
"I look at it as a chance for the council to change the way they've done their business over the last so many years," Duncan said, adding that he is supporting candidates who view the council's role as one of addressing broad policy issues and not micromanaging county government. With the right candidates in office, he said, "we can get a lot accomplished during the next four years."
Most of the attention to date has been on the eight candidates running in the Democratic primary for the four at-large seats. That's because the Democrats traditionally have dominated those seats, but also because with just four Republicans running, the GOP primary is uncontested.
This year, however, might be the best shot the Republicans have had in years to get someone elected to an at-large council seat: Former state senator Howard A. Denis has entered the fray and is already campaigning door-to-door for November. And he has the support of another county political heavyweight, Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.).
In addition to incumbents Leggett and Subin, and challenger Kramer, the Democratic field includes school board member Blair G. Ewing, former school board member Frances Brenneman, former planning board member Patricia S. Baptiste, Silver Spring redevelopment civic leader Steven A. Silverman and William B. O'Neil Jr., the top aide to council member Neal Potter (D-At Large). Potter and Gail Ewing (D-At Large) are not seeking reelection.
Their varied backgrounds aside, however, there are few sharp differences among the eight Democrats. Perhaps the biggest philosophical differences are over the pace of development, with Baptiste, Ewing and O'Neil upholding the banner of slow, managed growth long associated with Montgomery County. All three said they wholly opposed the controversial "pay-and-go" legislation passed -- and then quickly scaled back -- by the council earlier this year. The initial bill removed previous restrictions on development by allowing builders to pay a fee to proceed with certain projects.
By and large, the remaining candidates bill themselves as advocates of "moderate" growth. And, generally, they are more in step with Duncan's pro-economic development philosophy.
Yet because of the council's back-stepping on "pay-and-go," as well as Gov. Parris N. Glendening's decision to put the controversial proposed intercounty connector highway on hold, it does not seem that development will be the hot-button issue it was in other years. Other than that, there seems to be no litmus test so far in the campaign.
"The real issue is that there is no issue," said Brenneman, who in 1994 fell just 353 votes shy of beating Potter for the final at-large spot in the primary. "As a candidate, the question becomes, 'How do you break out of the pack?' "
The answer is different for each candidate. Brenneman, for instance, is focusing on her plans to improve after-school programs to reduce juvenile crime. Silverman, known best for his work on the redevelopment of Silver Spring, emphasizes proposals to reduce class size, while Ewing cites his longtime experience on the school board and his work on cutting costs at the Pentagon, where he held a full-time job. Kramer says his experience as a small-business owner sets him apart.
O'Neil has staked out the most skeptical position toward new development, and Baptiste talks about the value of managed growth. The two incumbents emphasize their long experience on the council.
But breaking out of the pack will also require arduous campaigning to reach voters in a district bigger than a congressional district. That's where endorsements, such as Duncan's, could play a pivotal role. But even that is debatable in Montgomery County, where voters traditionally have used the polls to express their independent streak.
"I think it's a double-edged sword," Baptiste said about the value of a Duncan endorsement. "Montgomery County voters like checks and balances."
Added Blair Ewing: "People here vote their own minds. That's an old Montgomery County tradition."
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