When Montgomery County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist announced two years ago that he would forsake reelection to study for the Episcopal priesthood, his office suite in Rockville buzzed with jokes about how "Father Charlie" would end his lame-duck term in monastic contemplation, far from the hurly-burly of politics.
There are no such gibes today. Liberated by his decision to leave Montgomery's boisterous political arena this December, but also determined to depart with a flourish, Gilchrist has set the local Democratic establishment on its ear with a series of personal victories that would do even the most ambitious pol proud.
Consider the week of May 12: That Monday, Gilchrist, appearing before the County Council, launched a scathing attack on a last-minute request by the Board of Education to add $7.3 million to its budget for an increase in teachers' salaries. The council denied the request on a 4-to-3 vote and told the board to take the money out of other programs.
On Tuesday, Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes signed into a law a series of bills to give future Montgomery executives broad new powers over land-use planning. Gilchrist had led the fight for the bills in the last General Assembly session over intense protests by the County Council, the local planning board and numerous civic associations.
On Thursday, Gilchrist announced that the county government will upgrade the job evaluations of about 6,000 public employes, disbursing an estimated $1 million in raises during the next year to hundreds of workers, especially women, in stressful and tedious jobs.
Gilchrist closed the week at a joint news conference with Del. Mary Boergers as the Rockville Democrat announced the end of her newborn campaign to unseat state Sen. S. Frank Shore, a longtime friend of the county executive. Gilchrist's intervention on behalf of Shore was a key factor in her decision to drop out, Boergers said.
Gilchrist, first elected to the executive's post in 1978, has long used the office as a bully pulpit, but never with the success that he is having six months before retirement from public life. His closest associates attribute his new-found political vitality chiefly to his decision, announced in the spring of 1984, to give up elective politics in 1986.
That decision, made after years of extraordinary public and private turmoil, has allowed Gilchrist to shrug off the conventional burdens of a lame-duck officeholder.
"He has thrown off the shackles," said Lewis T. Roberts, the chief administrative officer of Montgomery's $1 billion-a-year government. "After all this time in government, he knows where the flaws are -- and he's going after them."
Gilchrist's pursuit is made all the easier by the disarray among county Democrats as they jockey for reelection or higher office this year, and by a $20 million budget surplus that permits the executive to pursue old objectives and new goals.
But many believe that Gilchrist, at age 49, is thriving simply because he is utterly at ease with his own judgments. Friends say he is noticeably more relaxed about his work these days, a far cry from the early part of his first term when he was pilloried over a scandal in his administration's liquor control department. Now philosophical about political longevity and able to laugh at himself, Gilchrist is oiling the machinery of government with his own enthusiasm, according to his colleagues.
At the same time, he appears to be, as one admirer said, "driven by the Furies" -- exploiting his lame-duck status to leave a considerable legacy of public services to the county.
"Everything in Montgomery County is political one way or another, but with Charlie, the pressure's off," said Harvey Kushner, a local business executive and close adviser to Gilchrist. "He's a lot more comfortable now and can pursue his own agenda in a way that's quite different than running for office."
At a time when many local governments are trimming services, Gilchrist is liberally spreading Montgomery's wealth, plowing record amounts of money into road construction, transportation services, the creation of high-technology centers. He has even gone so far as to create yet another county agency, the Department of Addiction, Victim and Mental Health Services, to assist the estimated 4,000 chronically mentally ill in Montgomery.
Complaints by local psychiatrists that the new agency would drastically alter services to those in need did not ruffle Gilchrist. "We've been too passive in that area," he said in a recent interview.
Gilchrist and his staff were anything but passive in plotting the passage of the landmark planning bills, which will strip the County Council of its cherished powers to appoint all five planning board members and veto land-use master plans. The executive's staff spent months mustering evidence in support of the legislation, formed a "blue-ribbon" commission to study the explosive issue of growth and then mounted an aggressive lobbying effort in Annapolis to secure the General Assembly's blessing.
Although there was some risk of alienating his traditional allies in the House of Delegates and state Senate -- those with worries of their own in this election year -- Gilchrist campaigned personally for the bills from his Rockville office and in Annapolis. The executive says the measures represent the most significant change in the structure of county government in nearly 20 years.
"That was the beginning of Charlie speaking his mind without concern or fear," said Stanton J. Gildenhorn, a Democratic Party activist and longtime friend of Gilchrist. "Since he was not running again, he couldn't be accused of making a power grab."
Still, there was a gamble. "He was putting up what it had taken seven years to build: his reputation," said an aide, Edmond F. Rovner. "If he had failed, he would have been known for that failure."
"In the beginning, I gave it less than a 50-50 chance of passage," said Gilchrist, who pressed for the bills only after Roberts, Rovner, county environmental protection chief John L. Menke and others endorsed the measures.
"The major political consideration here was: Can this be achieved by this lame-duck county executive in the last of his eight years in office?" said Thomas B. Stone Jr., Gilchrist's lobbyist in Annapolis. "We concluded that if it was ever going to be done, this was the only time to achieve it."
If the timing and results were satisfactory for Gilchrist, the council's reaction was not. On May 2, County Council members took swift retribution against the executive, cutting $30,000 -- enough for one position -- from his lobbying staff's budget.
"The planning bill initiative was sold to him by his staff," said planning board Chairman Norman L. Christeller, a key strategist for the majority of the County Council. "It was not something he came up with out of the blue. I think he did it in response to his friends, not thinking about those of us who have to live with it."
Although it will be years before his legacy -- the planning bills, high-tech centers, an upcoming decision on a new waste disposal facility -- will be fully felt, Gilchrist said he plans to stay active as his term winds down.
"People say I must be looking forward to the end, but I'm not," Gilchrist said. "I'm not in a hurry.
"What I'm doing now is not based on the fact that I'm getting out, but on knowing what I'm going to do once I'm gone."