During the stormy months of school closing decisions in Montgomery County, conservative members of the Board of Education were denounced as racists and accused of polarizing the community. They had reversed the policies of their liberal predecessors and, amid bitter debate, had become the most controversial political figures in the county.
At the center of the uproar was a small, dark-haired woman with a Brooklyn accent: Marian L. Greenblatt.
Since riding into office five years ago on a groundswell of conservatism, Greenblatt has acquired enormous personal influence on the board. During her tenure the board has moved solidly to the right, firing a liberal superintendent, abolishing a black culture course for teachers, ousting its minority relations committee, changing racial integration policies and cutting personnel.
To many parents, Greenblatt represents the promise of a return to the "basics" of the three Rs and classroom discipline in the county schools. She has found her support in voters who are sold on the idea of "neighborhood schools" instead of mandatory busing, who respond to cries for "fiscal responsibility," and who are tired of what they say was an overly permissive approach to education that blossomed in the 1960s.
"The chief factor for my involvement was the concern over busing," Greenblatt says. "But I also didn't like what I was seeing. It was a permissive and progressive outlook I didn't want for my children. The permissiveness had gone too far."
Greenblatt is a phenomenon of affluent suburbia, where her style of conservatism has become more palatable recently, particularly if the politician preaching it has a good education and a liberal background. Some Democrats say they support Greenblatt's conservative outlook because they do not believe she is reactionary but an articulate spokesman with credentials they can trust: she is Jewish, a graduate of Barnard College, a PhD in education and an experienced teacher who once worked in the War on Poverty.
By reducing emotional and complex issues into simple themes, such as "assign homework regularly" or "school board decisions do not affect housing patterns," Greenblatt has struck a chord with some and a nerve with others. Supporters applaud her "courage" and "guts" for speaking out on volatile issues such as forced busing. Critics say her approach is so simplistic that it ignores the real concerns of minorities and the poor.
Both sides, however, acknowledge that she has become the dominant figure in school politics, and someone to reckon with in the future. Just marking her 40th birthday last week, Greenblatt, who is convinced her critics are a small vocal minority, is considering running for higher political office--County Council, county executive, perhaps even Congress--but her political future remains uncertain, largely because of the pugnacious public image that has accompanied her success.
With no knack for diplomacy and intense personal ambition, Greenblatt has antagonized her opponents at every step, leading to charges that she is narrow minded, manipulative, and insensitive. When subjected to criticism or when she fails to get her way, she has responded with emotional outbursts--occasionally bursting into tears--that raise questions about her personal toughness and her ability to compromise.
This combative image emerges, in part, from increasingly strained relations with minority groups and liberals, who see in Greenblatt the specter of old-fashioned racism.
"It is less important to characterize Marian Greenblatt's personal feelings than to be clear about the consequences of her actions," says Blair G. Ewing, a liberal who was elected to the board with Greenblatt in 1976 and who has been her chief opponent ever since.
"The returns are in," Ewing said, "and the results are the total alienation of every leader of the black community . . . , the growing willingness on the part of hate groups to be more open about what they say and more vicious about what they do, and embarrassment and anger on the part of political, educational, religious, and civic leaders about the damage done to the reputation of the county as a tolerant and decent place to live and do business."
While Greenblatt has become a symbol of conservatism in Montgomery County, she is no ideologue. Her political ideas have been formed from personal experience, not from a deeply ingrained philosophy. She was a lifelong Democrat--because, as she explains it, "everybody was a Democrat"--until switching parties last July.
Now she is a Republican with a strange assortment of liberal credentials. She received a master's degree at Rutgers University under the tutelage of Eugene D. Genovese, a prominent Marxist historian whose specialty is slavery and the American Civil War. For two years she taught at the mostly-black Hampton Institute and later worked for the federal government's War on Poverty as director of a Neighborhood Youth Corps program in Prince George's County. She has given money to the American Civil Liberties Union, owns stock in a company that finances integrated housing developments and handed out leaflets for George McGovern in 1972.
But despite her liberal background, Greenblatt's basic social conservatism eventually placed her closer to Ronald Reagan than to the New York Democrats she grew up with. In phrases that are reminiscent of the neoconservatives she closely resembles, Greenblatt explains she has little use for what she calls liberal "guilt" or spending tax money to give the underprivileged "a free ride." Her experiences in the 1960s merely reinforced that view.
"I was always sympathetic to the concerns of the civil rights movement ," Greenblatt said recently. "I certainly couldn't agree with the more flamboyant and far-out people, nor did I feel we all had to go on a guilt trip. My grandparents weren't here yet when all of this happened. They were persecuted in the pogroms. I was saying in the 1960's , this is the situation I was born into . . . and what can I do to help? But I don't feel that I was responsible for those things. I can't operate out of that kind of guilt."
As a doctoral student in education at the University of Maryland in the early 1970s, Greenblatt supplemented her course work by teaching, but she says she heard she would not be able to keep her job because of a quota system giving preference to black women.
"That must have had an effect on her conservatism," says her husband, Marshall (Mickey) Greenblatt. "She was put off. She was offended for being judged on nonsignificant and irrelevant factors."
The Greenblatts moved in 1969 to the middle-class Silver Spring neighborhood where they still live, a quiet area of tree-lined streets and modest, single-family homes one mile north of the Capital Beltway. It is not an affluent or elegant area, possessing just the normal signs of upward mobility: two cars in the garage, Cuisinarts in the kitchen, young families who take week-long summer trips to the Maryland shore and ski outings with the kids.
Among her friends in Montgomery County, Greenblatt developed a reputation as a gracious hostess and gourmet cook and as a mother whose sons were models of good behavior.
But the shy and caring person that friends describe was not evident in the public figure that first emerged in 1975, when Greenblatt became involved in educational politics in a local school fight as an opponent of forced busing.
"I had never seen or heard of her before," recalls Roscoe R. Nix, who with fellow board member Elizabeth W. Spencer had gone to Greenblatt's neighborhood one September evening in 1975 to talk about the board's new integration plan.
"But I'll never forget that first encounter," said Nix, now county NAACP president. "She stood up and said, 'Why don't we have a plebiscite?' I said, 'We elect congressmen, senators, county council, and school board members and don't usually have a plebiscite except at election time. Why is it that only on an issue of race you want a plebiscite?' "
To challenge the busing plan, the Cresthaven neighborhood where Greenblatt lived decided to field a candidate for the board in the next year's election. Greenblatt was recruited by Joseph R. Barse, a Republican economist and one of her current allies, who was leading a similar battle against busing in Chevy Chase.
The campaign was was cast as a crusade to "help keep neighborhood schools." Greenblatt spoke at coffees and teas, handed out literature at the county fair, and sought support door-to-door.
Managed by a neighborhood friend, Burt Liebowitz, the Greenblatt-Barse campaign raised $7,000 for the primary and a total of $17,000 by the end of the general election--an unusually large school board campaign chest at the time. They spent $200 to hire Hershel Shostak, a professional political adviser, who told committee members at an early meeting that they ought to contribute $100 of their own or abandon the idea of winning the election.
The "green machine," as her campaign organization was later nicknamed, was a serious business and it got her, though not Barse, elected on the first attempt. Greenblatt loyalists took pride in the astounding victory of their unknown candidate.
When Greenblatt was sworn in as a school board member in December 1976, however, she found herself a minority of one on the seven-member board. Still an unknown, she was perceived by some as a fluke, an antibusing candidate accidentally elected in liberal Montgomery County.
"She spent two years very much in isolation," says one school board observer. "She was put in her place. She was always losing. Once she came out of a board meeting in tears and said to a school system official , 'What does it take?' 'Four votes,' he said."
And four votes is what she eventually got. By 1978, Greenblatt found three candidates who, she says, "shared a similar philosophical outlook." Despite personal tensions among them, Barse, Carol F. Wallace and Eleanor Zappone ran on a slate that Mickey Greenblatt managed in the general election, and won. All three of the newly elected conservatives owed much of their political successes to Marian and Mickey Greenblatt.
In two years, Greenblatt had gained great influence on the school board. She had set an agenda--fire the liberal superintendent, Charles M. Bernardo, abolish the black culture course for teachers and "revitalize neighborhood schools"--and now she had the votes to implement it. She had also established a strong political base in her own neighborhood, where parents who supported her initial campaign continued to work for her allies. Another conservative political ally, Suzanne Peyser, was elected in 1980, when Greenblatt was reelected.
"The board had to be very strong and know what direction to take," Greenblatt explains. "We tried to create a team that has objectives, and we work together to accomplish these goals."
Greenblatt became legendary, even in her first two years on the board, for stubbornness and inflexibility. She had little taste for compromise, little time for analytic discussions and little patience for the bureaucracy, which she had promised to trim. Her treatment of the first student board member, David Naimon, resulted in accusations that she was arrogant and that she had no respect for young people.
"It is a tenaciousness without graciousness," says one school official who has known Greenblatt for several years.
"I characterize her as someone who sees things in black and white and seldom in shades of gray," says fellow board member Spencer, who has sparred with Greenblatt on several occasions. "She's extremely hard-headed," adds School Superintendent Edward Andrews.
Within days of the conservative takeover of the board, Greenblatt, by now installed as board president, appeared in Superintendent Bernardo's office to deliver the message that the board was not likely to extend his contract. Then she proposed reorganizing personnel in way that could have affected a supervisory position held by Bernardo's wife. Greenblatt said her motive was budgetary and also to prod the school system staff to come up with their own proposal for reorganization. Her critics said it was the trademark of a powerful and vindictive personality.
Almost as quickly as she confronted Bernardo, Greenblatt and her allies kept their campaign promise to do away with "HR 18," the human relations course designed to teach teachers about black culture. Although many teachers favored abolishing the program, the move enraged blacks and some liberals.
When Greenblatt took her bellicose image and her campaign pledge for "traditional education" into the 1980 election, she came in first with 127,000 votes (more than Ronald Reagan, who had 125,000 votes, but less than Democratic Rep. Mike Barnes' 148,000 or moderate Republican Sen. Charles McC. Mathias' 196,000). Her running mate, Peyser, also managed by Mickey Greenblatt, came in second, while her rival, Blair Ewing, came in third.
Even after a falling out with former board president Wallace, Greenblatt has retained considerable influence over the board. In the last year her conservative coalition has fired the board's minority relations committee, written a letter to the Reagan administration appealing on the issue of busing, raised the acceptable percentage of minority students in schools and changed school boundaries in such a way that liberals and minority groups have repeatedly accused her and her allies of deliberately trying to segregate schools.
"It hurts her to be called a racist because she is not prejudiced," Mickey Greenblatt says. "The number one message is that she really is not a racist."
Part of Greenblatt's image results from a failure to separate herself from some supporters who use unbecoming racial slurs when espousing her philosophies. Her tactic, in general, has been to attack bluntly issues that have symbolic value to minority groups, seldom anticipating the political consequences and seldom able to overcome the negative image that she receives in the aftermath.
"Marian is an immediate person, a task-oriented person, who doesn't always examine the ramifications of the issues," one school board insider explains. "She is not analytic, or reflective, or introspective."
Where Greenblatt will go from here is uncertain. She has no role models in politics and is interested in another office mainly, she says, "because I like being in a position where I can accomplish something." She has won a warm welcome from the county Republican Party, although some Republican sources say there is a sharp division over Greenblatt within the party ranks because of her controversial history.
Mickey Greenblatt, her campaign strategist, is confident of her future, quick to characterize her opponents as "jerks" and "putzes," and eager to spend time bolstering her image.
What is in it for him?
"She's my wife," he says, leaning forward, clutching a pencil in his palm. "And I want her to win."