A few days after Montgomery County Executive James Gleason announced in early February that he would not seek reelection, fellow county Republican Richmond (Max) Keeney placed several telephone calls to Gleason's Rockville office.
Keeney, a former county councilman, was thinking about running for the post, and he wanted to discuss the idea with the man who has been the county's first and only executive for seven years.
Today, nearly six months later, Keeney is considered the leading Republican candidate for county executive. He is still waiting for Gleason to return his calls.
The lack of communication between the two men is partly the result of personal animosities that go back to 1970, when Keeney supported Gleason's opponent in the Republican county executive primary. But it also says something about the peculiar nature of Republican politics in Montgomery County.
There have been few Republican success stories in Montgomery County this decade - Gleason, state Sen. Howard Denis and Rep. Newton Steers. Party solidarity has not been much of a factor in their victories in a county where two of every three voters register as Democrats. Rather, the Republicans have relied on their ability to appeal to Democrats and on the Democrats' penchant for fighting among themselves.
This is the historical reality that Keeney and his two primary opponents - Albert Ceconne and Gerald Warren - are facing this year, each in a different way.
Keeney, at 47, is a slim, black-haired man with narrow, deepset eyes. He is director of insurance for the Air Force Association, an organization of active, retired and service buffs. Keeney is the first to admit that his manner is not prepossessing.
"I'm certainly not the most aggressive guy who came down the pike," he said during an interview in Bethesda. "I'm assertive, but not terribly aggressive. Maybe the Republicans need somebody more aggressive, than I . . . I believe in finding solutions without making big waves."
The one time in his political career that Keeney attempted to make waves, he suffered the consequences. That was in 1974, when he ran for a county school board seat with, the campaign theme that then-Superintendent Homer Elseroad should be replaced. Keeney was the only one of eight school board candidates to say that. He finished eighth in the election.
This year Keeney has assumed a more moderate approach. He says nothing but good things about the man who will not talk to him, Gleason, and in fact tells voters that he hopes to carry on in the incumbent's tradition.
"Jim is a sensitive guy. He has a great dal of feeling for people who need help from the government," said Keeney. "Sometimes it doesn't come through his rough exterior, but he's got a warm nature. I think I'm the same way. I may be less of an individualist than he is, but both of us have the same philosophy that neither government nor more money is the best answer to every problem."
That last refrain is common for politicans these days - both Republicans and Democrats - and it is what Keeney talks about most. But even while speaking softly of the "callousness of government" and the "despair over property taxes," Keeney keeps away from the Proposition 13-style referendum in his county.
"I've said a couple of times that I think the message of California's property tax rollback is that an increasing number of people want the government out of their pocketbooks," said Keeney. "But I really think California was a unique situation.
"There, the people saw this enormous pile of surplus money sitting in the state treasury, and they decided they'd had it. I'm not sure that same feeling exists here. I would prefer to seek limits on spending rather than limits on revenue-producing activities. Limits on spending affect all taxes, whereas limits on revenues are targeted at only one tax."
Of more interest to Keeney than Proposition 13 is his plan to restructure the county government. "I would like to change it so that many responsibilities were based on geography rather than function," he said. "I would take different services - transportation, inspections, libraries, fire services - and reorganize them along geographical lines in different parts of the county. That would allow a lot of county workers to broaden their horizons and interests."
Before Gleason decided not to seek a third term, Kenney was serving as a minority member on the county planning board and satisfied in that role. "I had," he said, "no pretensions, ambitions or aims ever to seek office again."
Albert Ceconne, a 32-year-old real estate broker from Kensington, and Gerald Warren, a 37-year-old lawyer from Poolesville, both begin their explanations of why they decided to run in the GOP county executive primary with the words: "Because I'm the only candidate in the race without political debts. . ."
Their similarities end there. Ceconne, who ran for an at-large council seat in 1974 and has served on several county Republican clubs, takes himself and his campaign seriously. Warren, who served in the state's attorney's office for three years until 1976, readily concedes that he is a political unknown without money or organizational support.
Warren is attending all the forums and debates along with Keeney and Ceconne, but when asked recently what Republicans are supporting him, he conceded: "I haven't heard too much from them. I don't know that many." While maintaining that he fully supports the property tax rollback referendum in the county, Warren also admitted that he is not familiar with "the specifics" of the proposal.
Ceconne, in a recent interview, attempted to portray Keeney as a Democrat in disguise. "I feel it would be difficult for Keeney to divorce himself from the all-Democratic council that appointed him to the planning board," he said. "Only Republicans of similar views were appointed. He's gone along with the crowd until recently, when he's been posturing for the election."
It is Ceconne's contention that the eight-year sewer moratorium that slowed growth in the county of 580,000 residents until recently lifted was "purely political," and that Keeney "played the Democrat political game" by not speaking out against the moratorium.
"It neverd should have been imposed," said Ceconne. "Growth should have continued at the rate it was in the 1960s."