The political careers of Sidney Kramer and Neal Potter span two decades of economic change that transformed Montgomery County from bedroom suburb to major job center. Each thinks too much development happened too fast. Each had a hand in it.
And now, as the two men face each other in a county executive campaign charged by issues of growth and development, each man's portfolio on land use -- every vote cast, every zoning request approved, every developer donation received -- is being scrutinized.
Kramer, 65, a millionaire businessman and politician, promised when he was elected four years ago to control, manage and even restrain development in Montgomery. He says he has fulfilled that pledge.
Potter, 75, an economist with a record 20 years on the County Council, is making growth the touchstone of his surprise candidacy. He sees Kramer, by trade and temperament, as a man reluctant to slow down growth. "He has tried to stimulate it still further," Potter said.
Potter has the reputation in this race; his years as a civic activist, his efforts to protect Montgomery's vanishing open spaces and his preoccupation with the detail of government have made him a hero to those unhappy with the current administration.
Kramer, on the other hand, is hampered by the past. He made a fortune in commercial real estate; he has received record campaign contributions from developers; and rightly or wrongly, he is perceived as someone who sees growth as a good thing.
Kramer says to look at his record. He claims his administration is answering the cries of commuters sitting in choked traffic and the anger of parents whose children go to overcrowded schools.
Moreover, Kramer is calling into question Potter's credentials.
"I agree there is overdevelopment, absolutely without question. But the responsibility for that overdevelopment belongs with the County Council . . . and there is only one person who has been there for 20 years -- Neal Potter," said Kramer.
"The record is mixed," sums up Montgomery County Planning Board Chairman Gus Bauman. "Neal has supported growth and, at the same time, Kramer has supported restrictions on growth."
Consider, for example, that Potter cast his vote in favor of the redevelopment plan for downtown Bethesda, a mass of high rises that to some people is the epitome of overdevelopment in Montgomery.
Potter also voted in favor of the long-range plans that determined growth in such congested areas of the county as Germantown and the Route 29 corridor of eastern Montgomery. He also has tended to approve most of the zoning requests seeking higher densities that went before the council.
For his part, Kramer, who turned to politics after putting together a business enterprise from a string of car washes, early in his political career backed a rent control package that angered business leaders.
As county executive, he recommended that land earmarked for a Rockville area highway be turned into a state park; he used money slated for road projects to build more schools; and he has backed a growth policy that closed off much of the county to future development until roads and other services are in place.
In the four years since Kramer was elected county executive, there has been a slowing in Montgomery's growth. A recent report by county planners details a downturn in office completions, a slowing in the spurt of new jobs and a drop in residential building permits.
However, analysts say the slowdown has little to do with Kramer, just as the earlier years of record growth were not really a result of any inaction by government. Low interest rates, generous revenue bond financing and stimulated federal spending in industries key to the region made for the boom years for the entire Washington area. Changes in those conditions now are making for the slowdown that some see as the beginning of a recession.
The concept that the economy is the true regulator of growth has not muted the political debate. As the Sept. 11 Democratic primary approaches, questions resonate about the scope and pace of development and whether developers have too much clout with government.
"It's not so black and white," Bauman said.
Kramer, for example, is correct in reporting that Potter voted for the land use plans that gave shape to today's Bethesda. But according to Potter and other county officials, those plans represented a massive downzoning.
"It was downzoned about 75 percent," said Potter. He contends that current development is but one-third of what would have been allowed. He acknowledges that the plan may have been flawed and that many are unhappy with the results. But he also noted that construction -- a disruption that has been the source of many complaints -- has yet to be completed, and so the final verdict should wait.
Likewise, Potter voted to approve growth plans for such areas as Germantown and eastern Montgomery, source of so many complaints about traffic. But he claims he pushed -- sometimes successfully and sometimes unsuccessfully -- for lower densities or other changes that mitigated the growth.
"You have to look at the votes, the decisions that lead up to the final plan," said Norman Christeller, former Planning Board chairman, who is close to Potter but who said he is staying neutral in the race.
Kramer also has assailed Potter's approval of requests in zoning to permit more density, repeating a characterization of Potter from a 1986 Montgomery County Sentinel review that described him as one of two council members "who could almost never say no" to zoning requests.
The other council member in the Sentinel article was David Scull, Kramer's Democratic opponent in 1986. Scull also touted a no-growth platform, but Kramer won in a nearly 2-to-1 landslide.
However, there are differences between Potter and Scull, and an attack on Potter's record poses risks for Kramer.
Potter is more credible than Scull, seen by many as a Johnny-come-lately to slow growth. And Potter is without the political and personal enemies who worked against Scull.
"Neal favored managed, balanced growth . . . he was very consistent in that," said Scott Fosler, who served two terms on the council with Potter and who endorsed Kramer in 1986.
By the same token, supporters of Kramer and even some critics said it is inaccurate to portray him as pro-growth.
"I think I would say Kramer is probably more supportive of new economic development, new job growth than Potter, but both are supporters of trying to manage the growth within reasonable limits," said Christeller, who often differed with Kramer.
Lanny Davis, a Montgomery lawyer and newspaper executive who is chairman of Kramer's campaign, said there is a gap between the perception and the reality of Kramer's record on growth. "Kramer has a record of restraining development and relieving traffic congestion," he said.
Yet, Davis concedes the public impression of Kramer is of someone who favors growth -- an image forged in the main by Kramer's wealth and his stand in the battle over developing downtown Silver Spring, an issue that has become a litmus test in the county.
Kramer said the revitalization of downtown Silver Spring depends upon construction of a massive $250 million retail and office mall, and he pushed for a loosening of growth limits. Potter favored development on a smaller scale.
The proposed mall is still on the drawing boards but Kramer's support for the controversial development gained him hard-core enmity from some Silver Spring residents.
The heavy flow of contributions from developers in Kramer's campaign is also a factor.
"If you have two candidates and the money goes to one candidate, that is not to say that the one who gets the money is doing the bidding of the developers . . . but I think it is one test to ask why are they leaning in this direction. Why have they made this judgment?" Fosler said.
Kramer sees his campaign contributions as a non-issue. He challenges detractors to show where his public position was influenced by a campaign contribution. He said that developers contribute to his campaign for the same reason that his other contributors do. "They know Sid Kramer and they know him to do the right thing," he said.
Still, Kramer is sensitive to such suggestions. He asked Lloyd Moore, developer of the Silver Spring project, not to contribute to his campaign and said he returned checks from other developers whom he would not identify.
Potter said he is not suggesting that Kramer is influenced by the campaign contributions. "You don't have to be bought if you believe it in the first place," Potter said.