After several years of quiet feuding over image and style, factions within the Montgomery County legislative delegation have broken into open revolt, threatening a rift that could send two county "delegations" to Annapolis in January.
The conflicts, first aired days after the Nov. 7 elections, threaten to undermine the county's legislative influence in Annapolis, particularily over money bills that could have enormous impact on Montgomery's budget.
This is because the legislature tends to look favorably on purely local bills that have the united support of the local delegation. They tend to be passed with little fanfare under the concept of "local courtsey." They also need to present a united front to make sure that statewide money bills don't short change," Montgomery, legislators say.
"Unless the deep divisiveness is resolved very quickly, we'll have a terrible time working together," said Del. Judith Toth of Cabin John.
No one expects two chairmen to be elected. But the legislators say that unless a compromise candidate acceptable to all is chosen, the factions may not work together and the delegations' strengths could be diluted by the split.
Although the conflicts are old, the group faced with settling them has changed. The 19 member House delegation has seven new members - three of them the first Republicans to win House seats in two elections. The seven-member Senate contingent has two new members. Six of the senators are Democrats.
The festering differences in the House delegation surfaced, Nov. 11 when a Democratic caucus failed in an 8-8 vote to elect a chairman. They postponed the decision until Dec. 3.
These preliminaries excluded the three Republicans, who finally persuaded the Democrats to let them into the room, where they at to one side and flipped three coins to choose their own "chairman."
In an effort to bring about unity, Donald B. Robertson, the chairman of the delegation for seven years and the focus of some of the controversy, offered to relinquish his leadership post. Although several delegates still believe he is in the running, Robertson said, "I am not a candidate . . . I do not want to be chairman under these circumstances."
A possible successor to Robertson is Del. Joel Chasnoff, a one-term delegate from the 14th District in eastern Montgomery and a lawyer who has challenged Robertson for chairman twice in the past.
Del. David Scull, nephew of Acting Gov. Blair Lee III, also is campaigning for the slot.
Chasnoff and his supporters are critical of Robertson for fostering what they call the county's "aloof and overly technical" image in Annapolis. They complain that he has vested power in a small lique within the delegation, preempted their time with paperwork and a maze of unnecessary procedures and tied them up in Monday night meetings that occasionally drift to 2 a.m.
"I wanted to withdraw a bill last year and they spent an hour and a half debating whether I could or not," said Toth. "It was incredible. I sat there, not knowing whether to laugh or cry." She eventually was allowed to withdraw it.
"The ultimate goal," said Chasnoff, "is to have us in a better posture in Annapolis with other delegations and the state as a whole . . . We need to maximize our relationships with Prince George's County and even with our own senators."
A frequent complaint in the delegation is the enormous amount of time spent on an ever-growing volume of strictly local bills, such as allowing bingo for cash in the county or approving certain bond issues.
Each jurisdiction submits its own batch annually, but they are usually dropped in the hopper at the beginning of the session and passed with little fanfare by "local courtesy." In Montgomery, they are studied with unmatched zeal.
Robertson, delegation vice chairman Lucille Maurer and their supporters contend that some of the discontent is spread by members unwilling to carry their share of the workload or unhappy that their bills are not others' priorities.
Some delegates complain that the long Monday night sessions prohibit them from the informal legislative wheeling and dealing that traditionally takes place on Monday nights in bars and at cocktail parties in Annapolis.
"There have been many efforts to modify the procedures," said Robertson, "but there is also an unwillingness in some to buckle down."
Maurer noted that as soon as a simplified bill hearing procedure was implemented this year, a local interest group complained that it did not have enough time to testify. "We work hard because that's what our constituents expect of us," she said.
But even the county's senators clash with their own delegates. Recently, when Robertson attempted to distribute some of the local bill workload to the county's seven senators. Victory Crawford, the senators' chairman, ignored him.
"The senators aren't going to sit there until 2 a.m. dotting i's and crossing t's," said Crawford. "Our real problem in this county is for our delegates to get together as a bloc, but instead they're all over the place."
"Our number one priority is to get our fair share of state funds," said Sen. Howard Denis, a Republican. "We need to prevent this misperception of Montgomery as a county of millionaires from speading to the new legislators so that we don't get shut out in the future as we have in the past."