Steven Van Grack's pockets are filled with commemorative Rockville key chains to hand out to new acquaintances. His car sports a bumper sticker proclaiming his love for the city. His favorite tie bears the official red and blue city logo.
In Rockville, where many residents wear civic pride on their sleeves, Mayor Van Grack has emerged as the ultimate promoter. He sells Rockville as an all-American city, the jewel of Montgomery County, a bedroom community come of age.
But, facing three-term City Council member Douglas Duncan in a tight, bitter race for reelection, Van Grack is in many ways fighting the reputation he has built for himself as Rockville's top salesman. With the election just five days away, Van Grack, 39, is struggling to balance his efforts to peddle the city's traditional sense of mayor as down-home political leader with the reputation he gained in his 1985 election victory as the founder of a new slick political style.
"I like to think I represent all of Rockville. I live here, I work here, I often spend 24 hours a day here," Van Grack said. "I represent the concerns of the people who make their home here . . . . But the city is going through changes and the mayor and council have to deal with those."
In that first campaign, Van Grack toppled the city's political traditions by running as an independent in a system dominated by club-like nonpartisan parties.
He defeated incumbent Mayor Viola Hovsepian and longtime City Council member John Tyner II in the race for the $8,000-a-year post. To do that, he raised an unprecedented $30,000, hired old friend and pollster Keith Haller to run his campaign, and staged a much-publicized race against traffic down Rockville Pike.
Rockville Planning Commission Chairman Richard Arkin, a Van Grack supporter, said, "The city was ripe for him. He ran a good campaign and it came at the perfect time."
Van Grack is running essentially the same type of campaign this time. Haller is back with him and he has raised $39,537.
But now Van Grack is being challenged largely by the old-school political network he rattled two years ago. Duncan, with the backing of four former mayors, including Hovsepian, who is running on a council slate with him, accuses Van Grack of intruding in Rockville's traditions. After nearly two years in office, the mayor is charged with being an outsider.
Van Grack's ties to the county go back to 1957 when his family moved to Chevy Chase. Much of his "inspiration to get involved," he said, came from his late father, who founded the North Chevy Chase Citizens Association and ran unsuccessfully for County Council in 1966.
The father of three sons, Van Grack graduated from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He received both his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Maryland, where he met his wife, Gail, in a freshman biology class.
Van Grack has been a law clerk to a Montgomery County Circuit Court judge; worked for former state delegate Lucille Maurer, who is now the state treasurer; worked for former state senator Victor Crawford, and on several political campaigns. He worked on Michael Barnes' campaign for Congress in 1978 -- a campaign managed by Haller.
Despite his attempts to relay an image of an accessible, gregarious mayor, Van Grack has found he must defend the way he promotes the city to the outside world. In many ways, the campaign has not gone according to plan. With Duncan attacking Van Grack's record and vision, the mayor said he has been forced to become "more combative. I had hoped to run a positive, high-road campaign, but maybe that's just not possible."
It is Van Grack's association and fund raising among powerful developers such as Alan Kay, Nathan Landow and Jay Alfandre that has struck the highest pitch in the campaign.
The issue has stung Van Grack, who first came to the public eye when leading the Horizon Hills Civic Association's fight against the proposed 2 million-square-foot office, hotel and residential Westmont development.
Van Grack, while acknowledging that about one-third of his campaign contributions are from developers, said it is "ironic in some ways that people would think of me as pro-development. I resented developers thinking they could encroach on residential areas then and I do now."
Van Grack said he has never voted to rezone residential land as commercial, and "that record should speak to my feelings about maintaining our neighborhoods."
Nonetheless, the issue has garnered much attention in Rockville. Rockville resident Jane Joyce, who attended a forum this month at Maryvale Elementary School, said she is "scared by the money. It's too much for our city."
Van Grack also has been put on the defensive over his alliance with Gov. William Donald Schaefer. Van Grack supported Schaefer's candidacy for governor and Schaefer has not only visited Rockville to tour the city's downtown, but also appeared at a Van Grack fund-raiser.
Van Grack said a relationship with the governor "is not to be shied away from" and such ties can "only help the city" if it seeks funding for needed road improvements. Also, Van Grack said his relationship with Schaefer helped the city secure a $100,000 study of proposals for a vehicular bridge into Lincoln Park, a largely black community whose primary roads are cut off from the rest of Rockville by Metro tracks.
As mayor, Van Grack sits on the council and has the same vote as any single member, but he also has the power to set the agenda.
Van Grack favors rent control, quick passage of a plan to limit development on Rockville Pike, the construction of parallel roads to relieve Pike traffic, the hiring of a minority employe as assistant to the city manager and a minority set-aside program for city contracts.
He is running on a slate with four-term City Council member Stephen N. Abrams, Andrew W. Johnson, a member of the city's Traffic and Transportation Commission, city Board of Appeals member James Moone and civic activist Sima Osdoby.
Even though he relishes the traditional role as Rockville's first citizen, Van Grack is consciously cultivating a new following in the city. Haller said telephone and direct mail efforts are targeting "the new voter, someone who has voted in county, state and federal elections, but hasn't yet had a voice in Rockville."
Critics such as Hovsepian said the mayor's high-tech campaign style "hurts our community, splits it, I think. I'm interested in joining people together."
Yet Lanny Davis, a longtime political activist who supports Van Grack, said that the mayor should be credited for opening up the process in Rockville and for involving new constituencies in city government.
"Rockville is not just a sleepy old town, it is part of Montgomery County and what worked in the past isn't necessarily what is right for now," Davis said.