Like the pious seeking a blessing from a church elder, two Democrats fighting to become the next Montgomery County executive have launched a remarkable campaign to win the benediction of a 70-year-old economist, workaholic and amateur ice-skater named Neal Potter.
The courting of Potter by candidates Sidney Kramer and David Scull has catapulted the grand old man of the Montgomery County Council into the thick of one of the hottest electoral races in Montgomery history.
For the first time in Potter's 28 years in local politics, his endorsement is a coveted seal of political approval, especially so for Scull and Kramer -- two men Potter has known and worked with for years.
Kramer, a state senator, and Scull, a council member, have gone to great lengths to win Potter's blessing, forcing the self-effacing Chevy Chase resident into an unaccustomed role: that of a political broker who is tantalizing the two campaigns by saying nothing.
"I have a real dilemma," Potter said in an interview last week.
In addition to weighing the respective attributes and faults of Scull and Kramer, Potter faces the more acute dilemma of deciding whether to run for another term on the seven-member County Council. Potter turns 71 in March and has served 15 years on the council, longer than anyone in Montgomery history. He said he will announce his plans this week.
What Potter does will be crucial to county Democrats, who outnumber Republicans by a 2-to-1 margin but who are going through one of their most turbulent election years. Three Democrats are quitting the County Council -- Scull to run for executive, Esther P. Gelman to run for Congress and R. Scott Fosler to enter private business.
In addition, the Scull-Kramer contest is shaping up as a very expensive and bitter race that promises to resurrect old animosities among different wings of the party.
If Potter retires from politics, Montgomery Democrats would lose not only a strong candidate with a proven track record, but also the institutional memory of the County Council that they have controlled for more than a decade, party leaders say.
"I have a strong hunch he will run again," said Norman L. Christeller, the chairman of the county planning board, who is close to Potter. "There is no diminution in his energy or alertness. Neal still has things he wants to do. He's the war horse."
Potter's personal appeal stems from his political longevity -- he started at the old Western Suburban Democratic Club in 1958 -- and from his dawn-to-dark work regimen, a pace he breaks with weekly trips to the county skating rink in Rockville.
Potter, who was raised on a Montgomery farm, has a passion for preserving the county's diminishing open space and has mastered the intricacies of farm land tax assessment and transportation planning. A stickler for detail, he used to fine other council members a dime for every minute they were late to meetings when he was council president.
"Neal is a purist, which is why everybody is pulling at him," said Edmond F. Rovner, a longtime Democratic strategist who has known Potter for 30 years. "This is a year when Neal's blessing becomes valuable."
Indeed, it is precisely because of Potter's stature as an elder statesman that Scull and Kramer have tried so hard to woo him. Potter has told at least one associate that it is highly unlikely that he will endorse Scull, and Scull -- who is aware of that sentiment -- has urged Potter to run on an independent slate of council candidates this fall.
By contrast, Kramer, who is considering devising his own slate of candidates, would instantly add Potter to that group if he decides to run for reelection, according to spokesmen for Kramer's campaign.
"An endorsement from Neal would state Sid Kramer's campaign theme better than anything Sid Kramer can say," declared Lanny Davis, Kramer's campaign manager.
Support from Potter would bolster the Kramer and Scull campaigns where they are most vulnerable, said spokesmen for the two sides.
For Scull, it would serve to smooth some of the jagged divisions on the council, which during his tenure has been split between a majority faction he controlled and a minority of Potter and two other supporters of County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist, who is retiring to study for the priesthood.
Last summer, when his courtship of Potter began, Scull was careful to cultivate his council colleague's support for a controversial proposal to sharply limit development in the fast-growing county. Scull, who rarely takes a back seat to another politician, quickly dubbed the proposal "the Potter-Scull bill."
"Neal and I worked closely together on a number of issues," Scull said last week. "We've had a very productive legislative cooperation."
Potter has a slightly different view. "Dave is bright and ingenious but has made some maneuvers that just are not acceptable," he said. Potter cited as one example Scull's harsh treatment of council staff members, including a former aide to Potter who resigned partly because of the bad morale in that office, he said.
Kramer, a millionaire stung by Scull's criticism that he is little more than a spokesman for Montgomery's business community, has embraced Potter, the civic activist. Kramer's supporters believe that their candidate must show voters that he can deal with all segments of Montgomery's community, from wealthy developers to PTA organizers.
To do that, Lanny Davis orchestrated a behind-the-scenes effort this month to bring Potter and Kramer closer together.
Davis met with Potter late Jan. 17 to win his support for an alternative proposal to Scull's growth restrictions. Then, two days later, Kramer, Potter and a few Kramer advisers hashed out the final details of an alternative plan to be sponsored by council member Fosler.
Within 48 hours, Fosler released the details of his plan -- and Potter and Kramer announced their support for it, as did Scull.
Kramer, who is also scheduled to announce a "comprehensive" plan today on how to deal with Montgomery's severe development problems and traffic congestion, said the plan will incorporate some of Potter's slow-growth philosophy. The statement will include Potter's belief "that the County Council should remain the dominant planning body" in the county, said Kramer.
"Neal is the bridge between the past and the future," added Kramer. "He has such high integrity. His advice and ideas are a valuable guide."
Potter, a devout liberal on many social and economic issues, remains somewhat ambivalent about Kramer, with whom he served on the council in the early 1970s.
"Sid is a little too conservative for me, perhaps too bound up in business interests," said Potter. But, he added, "I got along with Sid better than David."