The presidential election and two congressional races may be dominating the political news in Montgomery County this season, but for campaigning furor and raucous debate, all three pale next to the ballot proposals to force County Council members to run by districts.
The only thing on which the two sides of the issue agree is that the stakes include Montgomery's reputation as a bastion of "good government."
Although, to some people, the change in elections might seem subtle, supporters of district elections say it would force council members to pay attention to local concerns and loosen the Democratic Party establishment's hold on the council.
"The personal animosity, the arrogance of power that you see in the council, is just revolting to the people who have to deal with the council," said State Sen. Howard A. Denis (R-Bethesda).
"That, as much as anything," he said, "has fueled the engine that is attempting to pull Question D over the finish line."
Supporters of the current at-large system say districting will sink the council in a mire of petty squabbles, interdistrict rivalry and pork-barrel politics.
"They'll never get anything done," said former state senator Victor L. Crawford, a Democrat. "The only thing they'd care about is their own little area . . . . It's bad government. It really is."
Under the current system, the county's seven council members are all elected by voters throughout the county. The county is divided into five districts from which candidates run, but all county voters may cast ballots for candidates from any area. The two remaining council members can live anywhere in the county but, in practice, have tended to come from the heavily populated southern area.
Question D calls for five council members elected by district and two elected at large. It is supported by a large, 3-year-old organization called the Coalition for Representative Government.
Question E, proposed by Republican congressional candidate Robin Ficker, calls for seven separate council districts.
The two groups were unable to settle their differences and present just one ballot question. So, if both questions pass, a state court would have to decide which won -- or if both proposals should be thrown out.
The question of whether the council should be elected by district has been bandied about for many years. But in 1982, the coalition placed a state constitutional amendment on the ballot -- applying only to Montgomery County -- that would permit it to change the way the council is elected.
The amendment passed state-wide, and in Montgomery County it won by a vote of about 105,000 to 36,000.
Proponents of districting say this vote may indicate strong support for their position. More importantly, it allowed them to get the issue on the county-wide ballot this year.
In this area, county councils are elected at large in Montgomery, Howard, Anne Arundel and Arlington, as is the City Council in Alexandria.
Fairfax County's council members are elected by district and the chairman is elected at large. The District has council members chosen both by district and at large, and an at-large council chairman.
Prince George's council was elected at large until two years ago when, following a landslide referendum decision, the council was reduced from 13 to nine members, who now run from individual districts.
Because of the change in the council's size and membership, it is hard to accurately gauge the effects of districting in Prince George's. But several candidates running against the Democratic Party establishment, which had dominated the old council, were successful in winning seats.
Both sides of the Montgomery County issue have been frantically lining up endorsements.
Districting proponents claim the support of the Republican Party, many local civic groups, the Rockville Chamber of Commerce, several Democratic precinct chairmen and state legislators, as well as Council members Scott Fosler and Rose Crenca.
Opponents boast the five remaining council members among their number, the Democratic Central Committee, several state legislators and, in a major blow for districting proponents, the county's chapter of the NAACP.
In a debate spiced by accusations of self-interest and power-grabbing, NAACP officials said they reached their decision on the basis of simple arithmetic.
"When we did some analysis of it," said chapter president Roscoe Nix, "we found . . . that no matter how the county is divvied up into districts , the lowest white vote is 69 percent."
Nix said blacks stand a better chance of getting elected by working county-wide, in league with liberal whites. While no promises were made in exchange for NAACP support, Nix said, he would be "surprised" if blacks were not included on any slate of candidates for the 1986 council elections.
Indeed, council member David L. Scull, a vigorous supporter of the current system, has said he will include blacks on any slate he heads in the 1986 elections.
Districting is not always good for blacks, said C. Vernon Gray, who became the first, and only, black on the neighboring Howard County Council in an at-large election in 1982.
He noted that three blacks have won at-large elections to the Montgomery County school board, but no county black has won a seat in district elections for Maryland's state legislature.
Supporters of districting say the NAACP is in error. "I believe that blacks and other minorities have a better opportunity with the district system," said Dennis Lavallee, a Democratic Party precinct chairman and a leader of the coalition campaigning for Question D.
"While running at large," he said, "you can draw on, presumably, minority support county wide. But you also draw on the opposition county wide."
Lavallee said the county, with almost 600,000 residents, has grown too large for at-large council races. Districting, he said, would "enable candidates who are independent of those factions to consider running. It will make the process fair and more responsive."
Donna Barron, a Republican from Chevy Chase, said the current system diminishes the influence of grass-roots political workers like herself.
"You write a check today for $25 to someone running at-large, what does it mean?" she asked. "They need big dollars."
A church-based group called Citizens For Decent Government has also joined the push for Question D because it feels excluded -- largely because of its unsuccessful efforts to stop a gay rights bill from passing the county council earlier this year.
One current council member, who asked not to be named, said members elected by district "would not be able to get away with" supporting many things, such as school spending that is higher in some areas of the county than others, or roads that inconvenience neighbors but benefit those driving through.
The freedom to do such things has helped make Montgomery a prosperous and progressive county, he said.
With districting, he predicted, the council members would bow to the wishes of petty interests and "tend their own pea patch" at the expense of everything greater.