For Chevy Chase elementary school teacher Fontaine Goeltom, the lanky figure bounding briskly up her walk with a handful of literature was just another politician looking for votes. "I don't know you," she told him before launching into a diatribe against the Montgomery County school board. "Are you a Democrat or a Republican?"
The lack of recognition doesn't perturb Del. Donald B. Robertson, the majority leader of the Maryland House of Delegates, the right-hand man to the House speaker, and the former chairman of the Montgomery delegation to Annapolis. One thing his decade in the legislature has taught him is that anonymity is part of the job.
"We are invisible people running for invisible offices," said Robertson.
Robertson and his three Democratic running mates in Montgomery's 18th Legislative District -- Sen. Margaret C. Schweinhaut, and Dels. Helen Koss and Patricia Sher -- have served in the General Assembly for a total of more than 55 years. Schweinhaut is chairwoman of the Executive Nominations Committee and serves on the Legislative Policy Committee. Koss is chairman of the House Constitutional and Administrative Law Committee.
Even with their long service and the key leadership posts they hold, only Schweinhaut, first elected to the assembly in 1954, could be considered widely known. "I've known Peg Schweinhaut for years," said Chevy Chase resident Gene Thomas upon receiving literature listing all four incumbents. "I've never heard of the other three, but I know Peg. If she's endorsing them, that's good enough for me."
Schweinhaut is unopposed in the primary, but the three incumbent delegates in the overwhelmingly Democratic district have come under sharp attack from lawyer John Hurson, 28, an aggressive and well-funded young challenger sounding the familiar themes of "new blood" and "time for a change." Of all the challengers taking on incumbents in Montgomery County this year, he is given the best chance to win. Unlike other challengers, Hurson, former 18th District Democratic Caucus chairman, is a longtime party worker and fund-raiser who has built ties to precinct chairmen.
He also is being backed by Gus Gentile, a veteran party activist who was co-chairman of the county's 1980 Kennedy-for-president campaign. He has been endorsed by a number of local Democratic clubs, including the New Century Democrats and the Alliance For Democratic Reform, and by the AFL-CIO, which Hurson persuaded to endorse him along with the incumbents.
Hurson's yellow-and-black "Another Person For Hurson" signs dot lawns along Georgia Avenue and East West Highway. And since June he has been campaigning door to door daily. Voters first receive a letter saying Hurson is coming, then afer he visits, they get a follow-up letter a few days later.
Koss is new to the 18th District because of reapportionment, which is believed to make her especially vulnerable. And despite incumbency, she and Robertson finished third in their respective multimember districts in 1978. Moreover, their lack of visibility also means that few voters know any of the candidates.
"This is a name recognition game," Hurson said. His one fear, he added, is that the incumbents can ride in on Schweinhaut's coattails. Hurson has tried to turn Koss' and Robertson's leadership positions into an issue by charging that because House leaders serve at the pleasure of Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Baltimore) it must mean blind support for Baltimore City needs.
"They talk about having Ben Cardin's ear," said Hurson. "But I wonder who's controlling who. They vote 95 percent of the time with the leadership and I haven't seen the quid pro quo."
Hurson's campaign manager, Democratic Central Committee vice chairman Joan Lott, is blunter: "You're supposed to represent Montgomery County's 18th District, not run and jump on Ben Cardin's Baltimore-controlled leadership team. Everything that Cardin and the Baltimore-controlled leadership wants is not always in the interest of Montgomery County."
The incumbents, stressing the importance of having a county voice in the legislative leadership, counter that Hurson's criticism reveals the newcomer's ignorance of State House politics. Working closely with the leadership keeps wealthy Montgomery from becoming a target of unfair overtaxation in the Byzantine politics of Annapolis, they argue.
"I wonder if John realizes what it would mean to Montgomery County taxpayers if we did not have that working relationship -- not a giveaway relationship -- with Baltimore City," said Schweinhaut. "Without Baltimore City, we would have never gotten our Metro funding.
"We have an educated constituency. I'm sure they understand how important it is to maintain our leadership positions in the legislature. In my 24 years, Montgomery County has never had as much clout in the legislature as they have now. At a time of shrinking federal funding, for Montgomery not to return to office the clout they have now would be totally unintelligible."
The leadership in the House of Delegates includes the speaker, the majority leader, the speaker pro tem, and the chairmen of the seven committees. Montgomery, which makes up about one-seventh of the legislature, holds one-third of those posts.
"Most counties are desperate for a leadership position," said Koss. "In Montgomery County, to try to turn leadership into a disadvantage just doesn't make sense."
Said Hurson, "I keep hearing that Don and Helen are in the leadership and can do good things for us, and my answer is: What have they done?" Hurson's campaign is a political turnaround. He was treasurer for the 18th District Democratic slate four years ago, and said he decided to challenge the incumbents because he grew tired of waiting for one of them to retire and for the party elders to select him to run.
"Politics is a constant series of the new guys throwing out the old guys," he said. He has called for a year-round district office, which the incumbents argue is not needed. He accuses the incumbents of not keeping in touch with constituents. Of Robertson, he said: "His invisibility is of his own making."
The anonymity of Annapolis lawmakers grows in part from Montgomery County's psychological and geographical proximity to metropolitan Washington.
"The focus of people in Montgomery towards government is on national and international affairs," said Robertson. And compared to Baltimore television and newspaper coverage, he said, Montgomery County residents receive little state legislative news. As a result, even with his title of "majority leader," this long-term Annapolis lawmaker is less well known than County Council and school board members.
"It is," said Robertson, "frustrating sometimes."