In April of last year, David Lee Scull--descendant of Robert E. Lee and heir to two of the most prominent names in Montgomery County politics--canceled his expected run for county executive, ending prematurely what many thought would be a bitter and drawn-out Democratic primary fight with incumbent Charles W. Gilchrist.
But for the last nine months, Scull has been waging a different kind of war against Gilchrist, a divisive, multifront war of strong words and big egos in a struggle for power and control of the county government.
From his new platform as council president, commanding a loyal four-member majority, Scull has pursued his own agenda, upstaged Gilchrist at every turn, seized the political initiative and even stripped the executive of some power in his stated drive to build a stronger, more independent county legislature. In the process, he has burned many bridges to important county constituencies, while forging unlikely alliances among the various groups that dislike him.
Scull calls himself a neoliberal: progressive on social issues but fiscally conservative. He sees himself as a reformer, an advocate of consumer causes since his days in the General Assembly where he championed new ethics legislation, consumer rights and reforms in the legal profession.
The contentious nature of this power struggle--and the strong emotions Scull has evoked--are strange for Montgomery County, where a highly educated, affluent citizenry with a tradition of strong civic involvement had created a kind of government-by-consensus. Many longtime observers say that for the first time the county, whose political factions were built around issues such as zoning and housing, is seeing factions developing around personalities and warring political camps.
Also, the Scull-Gilchrist battle holds major implications for the future development of the county's executive-style government, created in 1970 to ease the County Council's workload. Scull has turned the council presidency--normally a ceremonial and administrative job to which members of the elected council take turns electing one another--into a new seat of power to rival the executive.
To his supporters, Scull has been instrumental in restoring balance to the executive-council relationship, which some council members felt had swung too far in favor of the executive. He is an idea-man, they say, far-sighted enough to experiment with novel legislation. And in a county once derided for "paralysis by analysis," they say Scull has stepped up the council's pace of activity, with major issues now being decided in weeks instead of years. His win-loss record on county legislation has been good.
But Scull's opponents say the council's pace is only quick on issues Scull himself selects. His "far-sightedness" has led to a reputation for flakiness. Self-described visionaries are often seen as modern-day air-heads, and Scull has been dogged by labels since his days in the state legislature, where he was known as "The Delegate from Mars."
Moreover, Scull's opponents say his efforts to strengthen the role of the council are just the manifestation of a consuming political ambition and his feeling that he, not Gilchrist, should really be county executive.
"He's a very disappointed person," said council member Rose Crenca, an outspoken Scull critic. "He really feels by right he ought to be county executive. . . . Now you have a festering sore here. Things are done to show Mr. Gilchrist in a bad light. He Scull is willing to introduce almost anything for the publicity or the notoriety."
William E. Hanna Jr., the council's newest member who ran with Scull in last year's primary, said: "Dave has had aspirations to run for county executive and chose not to. He would have liked to. Now people tend to label every action as politically motivated."
Hanna added, "Some of the things Dave has proposed could be intepreted that way, as trying to enhance the role of the council. I have looked at those things very, very hard and asked, 'Is he trying to advance his own future political aspirations?' Only he knows that, the truth of it. I personally don't think so. It might result ultimately from what he is doing, but I don't think that's his motive."
But political advancement could prove difficult for Scull, who has profited in all his past elections from his well-known name. (His mother and father both served as president of the council, and his uncle was acting governor.) As council president, he has managed to alienate a variety of key interest groups, and some senior members of his own party, who talk about an "Anybody But Scull" movement to block his expected run for county executive in 1986.
Some Democrats already have approached State Sen. Sidney Kramer, a former council member and businessman, about challenging Scull for the nomination if, as conventional wisdom holds, Gilchrist does not seek a third term.
"If Scull wants to be county executive, what's he going to do?" asked former State Sen. Victor L. Crawford, one of those trying to recruit Kramer. "He's got the school teachers mad, he's got the police mad. The bar association, the chamber of commerce, they all think he's nuts. . . . There are a lot of negatives out there."
The list of groups Scull has managed to anger within the last nine months is long and diverse. It includes:
* Teachers. During a budget hearing, he criticizied their newly negotiated pay raises as excessive. "David Scull was against honoring our contract," said teacher's union President Jane Stern. "Our feelings were summed up at our rally for full funding, when someone held up a poster that read 'NUMB SCULL' and everybody cheered."
* Business leaders. After he proposed instituting civil penalties for minor violations of the county code, such as failing to cut the grass around a business, business leaders, in a rare show of political muscle in Montgomery, formed an alliance with civic groups and threatened to put the measure on the ballot until Scull watered down the proposal.
* Civic groups. "Most civic people would give him a negative rating," said Marilyn Piety, president of the Allied Civic Group representing associations east of Rock Creek Park. "He's been described as arrogant and inconsistent. He seems to just go off on any kind of issue half-cocked. He doesn't have all the facts, but he just charges ahead as if it were all his decision to make."
* Real estate agents. They remember Scull as the author of the bill, withdrawn under pressure from real estate brokers, that would force homeowner disclosure of major defects in homes they were trying to sell, and then make the owners liable for several years after the sale.
* Police. After Scull had helped delay a vote on the police union's negotiated contract for two days, officers expedited its approval by showing up at a council work session with a videotape camera to record the proceedings.
* The Montgomery County Taxpayer's League. Although this group might be expected to like Scull's fiscal conservatism, it has found him erratic and unpredictable. Said league President Bill Anderson, "Dave is, well. . . . I can't figure Dave out. Sometimes I think he's doing something good for the taxpayers, and sometimes he turns around and does just the opposite."
Scull waxes philosophical when presented with the list. From his one-man law office on the 12th floor of an office building on Connecticut Avenue in Chevy Chase, the 40-year-old, boyish-looking Scull explained in characteristically subdued tones how the prevalence of single-issue interest groups has stymied political decision-making in all great Western democracies.
"I've been at odds with the chamber of commerce, the realtors and the bar for all my years in public life," Scull said. "No one ever sees himself as being in need of reform. So there is always resistance to change."
That self-anointed reformer role on the council has led to progressive legislation such as paycheck deductions from employes who owe child support and allowing employes to set aside part of their salary for day-care costs, thus avoid payment of federal taxes on that part of their income. Both new laws are considered novel and experimental, and Scull takes seriously the county's reputation as an innovator of model legislation.
Scull takes just as seriously his role as scion to the county's most politically prominent family, and he views his own energetic, activist and controversial tenure as falling into the mold first cast by his father and mother, both council presidents. Scull's father, David Sr., served in the late 1960s, and his mother, Elizabeth, served from 1968 until her death in 1980.
"My mother called herself a militant moderate. My father was a pragmatic liberal," Scull said. "If you look back to the exciting days of the 1960s, you see a great deal of legislation enacted--much of it by 4-to-3 votes." He ticked off a list that included adoption of the executive form of government, establishment of hearing examiners to review zoning applications, and the nation's first local open housing law.
The council's three-member minority--Neal Potter, Scott Fosler and Crenca--say Scull's vision of the council is a thin veil for his efforts to consolidate his own power. To them, and to some outside observers, many issues today are decided for purely political reasons, although they say Scull and his allies go to great lengths to construct elaborate, nonpolitical facades.
An example of such an instance, they say, occurred last month when the four majority council members--Scull, Hanna, Esther P. Gelman and Michael Gudis--killed Gilchrist's appointment of Ruth Spector to the social services board. Spector, a county employe and a trained social worker, lost her council seat to Hanna in 1982 when she ran with Gilchrist on the "United Democrats" primary slate against the now four-member majority.
Scull's critics say that killing Spector's appointment outright would have appeared too blatantly political, so the four adopted a new "policy" that says county employes should not serve on voluntary boards and committees, even though many currently do. The new policy was needed, explained Gudis speaking for the majority, to preserve the watchdog role played by these boards and commissions. Armed with the new policy, Spector's appointment was voted down (with Hanna voting with his feet, by leaving the room).
"They were out to get Ruth Spector rather than outlining some lofty principles," said the normally staid Potter. The new policy, he said, "was a rationalization to get their political opponent."
Scull has also been criticized for his manner, which is interpreted by some as aloof. A popular, not-for-attribution remark about Scull is that he has a "plantation mentality," a holdover from the era when Scull's grandfather, Col. E. Brooke Lee, ran Montgomery County like his private fiefdom. That political lineage extends to David Scull's uncle, Blair Lee III, twice elected lieutentant goveror who served as acting governor while Gov. Marvin Mandel was on trial for corruption. Blair Lee lost a bid to be elected governor in 1978. Scull's cousin, Blair Lee IV, is Gilchrist's representative in Annapolis.
Hanna, among other supporters, said he prefers Scull's activist, idea-oriented style for injecting new energy and dynamism into a council traditionally known for a propensity to study issues indefinitely. Leadership, he said, is making a tough decision and not necessarily striving for the consensus.
But that new activism by the council also has led to the criticism that major issues no longer receive the thoughtful, deliberative attention for which Montgomery was noted. Bills on major topics, such as cable television, are rushed through quickly, often voted on within weeks of introduction.
At one marathon meeting this month, new personnel rules for the council staff were voted on near midnight, with little debate. When Fosler pointed out that the county's merit board had not commented on the proposal, as required by law, a staff aide was dispatched down the hall to interrupt the merit board, which also was in a late-night session, to ask its members for comments.
That quickened pace of activity--a fundamental change in the council's style--is a reflection of Scull's personality. Since his days in the General Assembly, where he chaired Montgomery's delegation, Scull has been known as a politician with ideas--many of them not well thought out. Shunning the cautious approach of his counterparts, Scull charges ahead, introducing bills where he sees problems and often finding dubious ways to work around obvious legal barriers.
For example, when the county attorney and the state attorney general both told council member Scull last year that it would be illegal to ban handguns in the county, Scull came back with a bill to ban bullets instead. In another debate, when the county attorney pointed out that the council had no jurisdiction over corporate antitrust matters, Scull insisted on passing a local antitrust bill anyway, and waiting for a court challenge.
Some Scull initiatives that were rejected by the legislature, including proposed reforms in the legal profession, were later instituted through regulations; he reintroduced others before the council.
But where Scull's majority on the council is united on matters of power and control, it has often collapsed on legislative matters. For instance, Scull has had no success in instituting his neoliberal agenda of restricting employe pay raises and cutting pension costs. Scull mustered just two votes--his own and Hanna's--for a bill to cut the county's share of employe health insurance.
County Executive Gilchrist, at a luncheon with reporters, commented on the Scull-led council's propensity for passing bills when no one has complained of a problem. "Nothing's broken, but things are being fixed despite that fact," Gilchrist said.
Scull, for his part, takes pride in the council's ability to spot problems before others see them. Said Scull, "Democracy is notoriously bad at far-sighted problem-solving, and we are forever reacting to crises.
Montgomery County is the frontline of democracy. The solutions tend to be the first of their kind. What we do here is rapidly repeated elsewhere."
Asked if he could carry on that role of innovator better from the executive's office than the council presidency, he ducked, replying, "In a place like Montgomery, where ideas count for most and jobs and patronage for less, power is decentralized. The council is elected to set policy. The executive is elected to carry it out. They are two different jobs."