On a recent afternoon, less than a minute into the conversation, David L. Scull, the newest member of the Montgomery County Council and scion of one of Maryland's oldest political dynasties, handed a visitor to his office four sheets of paper.
The two sets of pages, one a 1982 biography and the other a statement by his campaign manager, contained no mention of what race prompted the preparation of the literature.
But there was a method to this omission. Scull is running for county executive and he's been running hard since he joined the council seven months ago. But he's playing his options wide and testing their reception.
"Assuming there will be an election, and assuming I will run for something, I assume you will be interested in these," Scull offered as his only explanation of the campaign literature.
A former state delegate with liberal credentials, Scull was appointed to the council in June to fill the post held by his mother, Elizabeth Lee Scull, after she died of cancer.
Already, David Scull's skirting of an announcement that he intends to challenge incumbent County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist in the Democratic primary has caused problems on the Montgomery Democratic front. Some Democratic Central Committee people, who normally remain neutral in primary races, are none too subtly attempting to block Scull's candidacy, while County Council members are split. In the party, workers are feeling the pressure to line up as one of Charlie's people or one of Dave's people.
On the subject and for the record, Scull is cautious, conceding that he is seriously considering making a bid for the county's top seat and that he is conducting an informal poll. He says he probably will announce a decision in February.
But while he evades any direct commitment on the record, Scull, whose political lineage goes back 11 generations and most recently includes his uncle, former acting governor Blair Lee III, rarely misses a chance to intimate that he believes the Democrats face a tough battle if they go with Gilchrist as their nominee. Scull says "the party is in serious trouble" and he dismisses a poll showing Gilchrist beating him 51 to 22 percent as "inevitable" when there are no declared candidates.
In off-the-record conversations with political confidants, Scull has been known to characterize Gilchrist's chances for reelection as slim and to criticize the executive for his handling of the county's liquor department crisis, which involved allegations of mismanagement and conflicts of interest.
Not surprisingly, Scull is expected to declare his campaign intentions--whether he will run for county executive or for another term on the council--soon after the council's commission on the liquor department controversy releases its final report in early February. Although Gilchrist has been cleared of any illegal activity, many expect nonetheless that the county executive will take a fair lambasting for what some have termed questionable hiring practices and mismanagement.
Further fueling the speculation that Scull will challenge Gilchrist in September are Scull's recent actions on the council. He ran twice for a leadership spot on the council, in June and then December, but withdrew his name when he could not gather the votes. More importantly, Scull consistently has attempted to stake out a position as the council's most fiscally conservative member, calling for across-the-board budget cuts of 20 percent and opposing most new council funding requests. This move, say observers, is a shot at glossing over his liberal image and reassuring the business community.
It has caused some party regulars and Democratic central committee members, who fear a divisive Democratic primary, to try to force Scull out of the race. Gilchrist and Scull are ideologically similar and nearly all agree that a primary race between the two men would be a personal and bitter one, leading to the possible election of a Republican like Del. Luiz Simmons, who is frequently mentioned as the possible Republican nominee.
An ironic twist is the connection of Blair Lee IV, Scull's first cousin, to the Gilchrist administration. Lee, son of the former acting governor, is Gilchrist's lobbyist to the state legislature and is considered to be one of his most able aides. The loss of Lee as a campaign worker could hurt Gilchrist, but Lee already has told Gilchrist and Scull that he is going "to sit this one out."
"Dave is not a political wheeler or dealer," said one Democratic Central Committee member, who like most Scull opponents interviewed asked not to be identified. "But until recently Dave was the darling of the left. Now I think he has begun to fancy himself as the David Stockman of Montgomery County."
Critics particularly like to compare Scull's County Council performance to his record as a liberal, consumer-oriented state delegate--and to that of his mother Elizabeth Scull, the advocate of the poor. Scull's recent criticism of a Gilchrist proposal to temporarily replace federal welfare dollars lost by the working poor and train recipients at the same time is an example they frequently cite to prove their claim. Although Scull eventually voted for the program, he was the only council member to seriously question the logistics, asking whether the Gilchrist administration had considered phasing down benefits over a five-month period rather than maintaining benefits at a set level.
"I don't know if Betty would have been surprised at what David is doing, but she certainly would have been on the other side," said council member Ruth Spector. "Betty had an ability to empathize with other people's needs. I don't see that in David."
Scull dismisses these accusations. A review of Scull's record in Annapolis appears to support his contention that his interests have not changed much. Among the bills he introduced there were measures that would extend a grant to Rockville to build cottages for the elderly, establish a goal that would reward 10 percent of all state contracts to minorities or women (Scull introduced a similar bill on the local level) and cut down the legal fees in probate cases.
At the same time, in addition to requesting agencies to show where 5 percent could be cut from their budgets, Scull introduced the so-called "sunset law," which resulted in the abolition of a number of agencies, including the movie censor board.
If any change has come, it has not been in Scull, say his supporters, but in party members who assumed Scull would accept the political status quo and support Gilchrist's reelection.
"The only people who are opposing David Scull are those who are afraid and have something to lose," said council member Esther Gelman, Gilchrist's most vocal opponent on the council. "David has been just too effective for some people on this council and has injured a few egos."
According to Gelman, Scull has been able to push through legislation that had been stagnating. In particular, Gelman points to the help Scull gave her in getting cable campaign contribution limits passed. Gelman introduced the legisation in April but it was not passed until last week. "I'm eternally grateful for him; . . . he came in and just whacked it through. He deserves all the credit for getting that legislation passed," said Gelman.
David Scull may be more budget-conscious than his mother, say other Democrats, but as for differences in concern for social programs, the two are about as indistinguishable as navy blue and dark blue.
"I don't really understand this talk about shifting colors," said Norman Christeller, director of the county planning commission and a former council member who served with Elizabeth Scull and who plans to remain uncommitted in the primary race. "Betty's commitment was compassionate, David's is just more intellectual."
Scull also argued that he is still deeply concerned about low-income housing and social programs for the poor, pointing to his fine-tuning of a housing proposal that includes, as a major element, the county's commitment to subsidized housing.
His questions about the working poor program, he added, were based on a concern that to maintain the same level of benefits for an extended period and then suddenly drop all funding was an illogical way of weaning people off the welfare system. As for his call for a 20 percent across-the-board budget cut, Scull said this was his way of getting the agencies to at least discuss and seriously look at places where they could reduce if needed.