In Montgomery County, the League of Women Voters traditionally has functioned as a nonpartisan mechanism for acquiring political savvy: organizing seminars on lobbying, debating environmental and educational issues, and conducting voter surveys.
But opponents say that, after spending years alongside the seats of power, Montgomery County's grand dame of good government has pulled up to the table.
The complaint that the group's leaders have started muddying their white gloves in partisan politics first surfaced when league leaders began almost routinely to get jobs -- paid and unpaid -- with the county. Critics became particularly strident late last fall when the league joined with the County Council majority in the successful effort to defeat a measure to elect council members by district.
"It's a little rough when a group that's supposed to be Caesar's wife gets involved in down-and-dirty campaigning," said tax lawyer Julie Davis, a Chevy Chase Democratic precinct chairman. "Any tax-exempt organization is prohibited from operating for its own benefit and it's a legitimate question whether what these women are doing amounts to benefiting."
Said Carla Satinsky, the county league president: "I think people are surprised when we lobby, when we get out and say, 'Do what we want.' But education is only one part of a two-pronged mission . . . . The other is to take a position and then pursue it."
The political appointments, she said, reward hard work at the local levels, "and those committees mean hours and hours of more work for which you don't get paid." Besides, Satinsky added, smiling, "If you're president of the league, you don't expect to die after you retire."
Her comment rings true. Former league president Barbara Heyman, for example, will make about $18,000 as the County Council's paid lobbyist during the legislature's three-month session in Annapolis. Lois Stoner, another former president, makes a little more than $12,000 as the school board's lobbyist.
Former league officer Sally Kansugar was appointed to the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission and Pat Plunkett, one of the three league staff members on a controversial park and planning commission contract, stayed on to take a full-time job with the commission.
"Whenever the County Council appoints a committee, we routinely include a member of the league," said council member Rose Crenca. "And whenever we name the chair, it's always the league representative."
There are a number of critics of this pattern, particularly from people outside the Democratic Party structure that dominates Montgomery County politics.
"They're essentially a stalking horse for the Democratic organization," said Paul Clark, a former county Republican Party chairman and cochairman of the bipartisan group that advocated councilmanic districts.
"The machine in Montgomery County may be relatively benign, but it's still a political machine," said Leon Reed, president of the North Bethesda Congress of civic associations. "It ought to be acknowledged by supporters of the status quo that it facilitates machine politics."
Satinsky responded: "I'm not the person to talk to about political realities; I've never been involved in practical politics."
Ten years ago, in a boom that reflected both the increasing civic activism of women and the post-Watergate interest in government oversight, the Montgomery County league reached a membership high of more than 1,300.
It is less than half that now. Its current members, said Crenca, a longtime league member, "are nice, intelligent, hard-working women who spend a lot of time around the council, who feel they are accomplishing something and who may have developed a desire to please."
"But," he said, "they have wandered into a gray area . . . where they could be used."
The league has been tarred by association with some of the council's special-interest supporters. Its traditional enthusiasm for housing issues, for example, has led to an unlikely alliance with developers, according to Deer Park activist Pam Lindstrom, a former league member.
"Housing activists, in and out of the league, have managed to equate the goals of poor people with the goals of developers," Lindstrom said. "They think that since the poor need better housing, anything that promotes building is worthwhile. It's all done in the name of liberalism -- just give the developers anything they want.
Because the league comes to a "consensus" on an issue rather than a vote, the league can be in the position of lobbying hard for an issue that only a relatively few members feel strongly about.
This is what many observers, both within the league and outside, believe happened last fall, when the league formed a political action committee with the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce to oppose passage of the referendum on councilmanic districts.
The Question D initiative, which would have replaced the seven at-large council seats with five elected by districts and two at large, as well as Question E, which called for all seven seats to be elected by district, were direct threats, if not a personal challenge, to County Council incumbents.
Like virtually all the county's elected officials, the council's seven members are Democratic, and defeating Questions D and E was bluntly described by Democratic Party committee chairman Jay Bernstein as a matter of "keeping the county Democratic."
The referendum had partisan resonance because the newer northern, or upcounty, neighborhoods are considered to have more Republicans.
In the last weeks before the election, the league joined the chamber to create a political action committee called the Alliance for Retaining Good Government, which raised more than $30,000.
Satinsky, as league president, made a series of radio spots opposing passage of Question D.
"You don't get to have it both ways," said Jenny Sue Dunner, executive director of a pro-Question D coalition. "You don't get to be educational and informational and then form a PAC with the Chamber of Commerce and wrap it in a cloak of good government."
Among the contributors to the PAC were Ackerman & Co., developer of the $500 million Washingtonian site off Shady Grove Road, and Jay Alfandre, developer of the former golf course just to the north. Both the Ackerman and Alfandre development proposals, long stalled, were approved by the council within weeks after the election.
"The last pretense of objectivism went down," said upcounty environmental activist Margaret Erickson. "The league turned into a front for builders and big developers."
"There's no question in my mind that it was the league that defeated Question D," said Bender. "It was a stroke of genius to take the developers' money and the league's name."
Democratic committee chairman Bernstein, celebrating on election night, agreed.
"We defeated Question D," he announced. "The NAACP, the Chamber of Commerce, the League of Women Voters -- the party did it."
The shadow of Question D has lengthened since the election, and it threatens to fall on the league's certifiable good works, including its long-popular voters guide.
"As one who has always depended on the voters guide, I think we all lose something," Bender said. "I'm not sure I could accept at face value any future evaluation."
In the wake of such criticism, Satinsky said: "I know that people who take a strong position are going to be unpopular. But we try to look at an issue on its own merits.
"Question D was on the ballot because, in 1982, the league lobbied the state position that all home-rule charter counties should be able to decide for themselves how they wanted to elect a council. The assumption people make is that if you vote to open the procedure, you want to change the process.
"Look, we know we walk a very fine line."