For 69-year-old senior citizen activist Abraham Bloom, convener of the Montgomery County Gray Panthers, the primary issue in the upcoming county executive's race is a shortage of affordable housing. But at candidate forums and panels, what Bloom hears are candidates telling him how concerned they are about his safety.
"The politicians are trying to make crime an issue," Bloom said, "because that helps them avoid the real issues. Everybody is against crime, but there's so many issues that people are not talking about. We have 9,000 families in the county who need housing."
Yet the candidates for county executive--including the incumbent, Democrat Charles W. Gilchrist--have made crime a centerpiece of their campaigns. They launch a barrage of sometimes conflicting statistics as they try to outpace each other on a perennial issue that politicians and pollsters agree is major, but not the most pressing on people's minds.
In a poll commissioned to find themes for Republican candidates, crime was mentioned by only a fraction of the respondents, according to GOP county chairman Paul Clark. That result was similar to a University of Maryland Survey Research Center poll that placed the economy far ahead of crime as the number one problem for Marylanders and Montgomery residents during the first third of 1982.
"But crime is an American, apple-pie issue," Clark said. "And every candidate wants to out-American the others."
Gilchrist has made crime the top issue touted in his advertisements and brochures--ahead of drunk driving, jobs, the budget and senior citizens. He talks about having added 44 police officers (for a total of 794) since he took office, instituting two additional recruit classes, lifting a freeze on police promotions and presiding over a year-long reduction in burglaries.
"Based on the facts, people should feel more confident," Gilchrist said. The police department's half-year statistics, to be released today, are expected to show a sharp drop in burglaries, larcenies and car thefts, but increases in violent crimes--murders, aggravated assaults and rapes.
"This is still the safest place to live in the metropolitan area," said Thomas Stone, Gilchrist's executive assistant. "I think the only issues will be, 'Have you done enough?' "
Democratic contender Wade Dunn--who emphasized crime by launching his radio campaign with the opening theme from "Dragnet"--said, "Gilchrist is playing the numbers game, and he is absolutely playing politics with crime. He is misleading the public."
Del. Luiz Simmons and banker Joseph McGrath, two Republicans vying for the nomination to oppose Gilchrist, also accuse Gilchrist of manipulating the statistics to emphasize the reduction in burglaries while ignoring a general four-year increase in the violent crimes. They accuse him too of taking credit for the sharper drop in burglaries, which they say is really because of a severe winter (that apparently keeps more burglars indoors), tougher laws regulating precious metals and the capture of Bernard Welch, a one-man area crime wave.
In his first issue paper, Simmons pointed to findings of an April countywide poll in which he asked: "Do you think that the crime problem in Montgomery County is more serious, about the same, or less serious than it was four years ago?" He said the poll found 64 percent answered that crime was "more serious."
"The current administration has failed to level with the public as to the increase in crime," Simmons said. "The image of Montgomery County as a genteel society is in tatters."
Simmons proposed increasing the neighborhood watch program and a review of how police spend their hours.
He said his data shows that police officers spend a large percentage of their time answering calls that could possibly be handled best by other county agencies--calls for loose animals, abandoned cars, and malfunctioning burglar alarms. He said adding another 40 police officers is "a drop in the bucket," and what is really needed is a top-level review of police man hours.
Simmons said that in Fairfax County, where about 250 neighborhoods operate crime-watch programs, major crime dropped by 21 percent in the first half of this year. Fairfax Police Chief Carroll D. Buracker attributed that drop partly to the watch programs. "Community watch is a relatively low-cost initiative," Simmons said.
McGrath, Dunn and real estate executive John P. (Jack) Hewitt, the third GOP primary contender, also said they favor extensive use of community watch progams.
Hewitt said watch programs are important because "the police department cannot solve all the problems." He said police "don't have enough investigators."
Hewitt added that the judicial system must be reformed to make sure convicted criminals go to jail swiftly.
McGrath added that "Gilchrist has made it [crime] a shooting target by saying it was one of his major accomplishments. Gilchrist's manipulation of the statistics leaves him vulnerable."
"I'm not sure I want to discuss crime as a partisan issue," Gilchrist said. "It's ridiculous for politicians to say they can wave a wand and deal with the problem."