Montgomery County Executive Sidney Kramer said yesterday that veteran County Council member Neal Potter is "the most formidable opponent" that could have emerged to challenge him but charged that Potter has neither the experience nor the temperament to be county executive.
Acknowledging for the first time that he is in a close race for reelection, Kramer said that his businesslike approach to governing is one of the reasons people don't have a strong impression of him after four years in the county's top elective office.
"If I have been deficient in any way over the last four years . . . it's been in the fact that I haven't gone out and tooted my own horn and beat my own chest and said, 'Look what I am doing for you voters,' " Kramer said.
But Kramer said he is not worried about a recent Washington Post poll of self-described registered Democratic voters that showed him virtually neck and neck with Potter and about one-third of those surveyed still undecided.
Kramer said he believes that voters simply haven't started to focus on the race and that the two weeks remaining before the Sept. 11 primary will be crucial.
In a wide-ranging interview with Washington Post reporters and editors, Kramer defended his four years in office. He painted himself as a "nuts and bolts administrator" who has provided responsible stewardship over the $1.5 billion county government and who has lived up to a campaign pledge to manage Montgomery's growth and development.
Kramer identified drug and alcohol abuse as his prime worry for the county, while agreeing that Montgomery faces uncertain economic times because of a national financial slowdown and threats to state aid.
He said the county will continue its commitment to high-quality education, but he believes there should be changes in the relationship between the county and its elected school board.
And, in his harshest criticism to date of Potter, Kramer said the 20-year council veteran simply "is not qualified." He charged that Potter has shown he is incapable of building consensus for his views and has no administrative experience.
Moreoever, Kramer -- repeating a theme that is being sounded in $50,000 worth of radio and television advertisements now airing -- said that Potter is running away from his record on growth because it conflicts with the political image Potter is trying to fashion as the slow-growth candidate.
"The record will substantiate that Mr. Potter over 20 years has voted for the bulk of the development that is now taking place in Montgomery County," Kramer said.
Kramer, who built a million-dollar commercial real estate business from a string of car washes, said he agrees with those who say that Montgomery has grown too fast. But he said the development is not the result of any of his policies and that, in fact, growth has tended to slow since he took office in 1986.
Potter and his supporters have said that Kramer is distorting his record on growth by simply showing a tally of votes that doesn't reflect the meaning or context of issues. Kramer's strategy to turn the spotlight on his opponent -- a move that succeeded in his 1986 primary battle with former council member David Scull -- could backfire because of Potter's reputation as an advocate for slow growth.
Potter, who entered the county executive race hours before the filing deadline less than two months ago, is outmatched in campaign finances, raising about $32,000 to the $243,000 amassed by Kramer.
Kramer, though, said that Potter's strength comes from his 20-year exposure to Montgomery voters. Potter, 75, an economist by training, has run successfully countywide more times than Kramer and pulled in more votes than Kramer in the 1986 election. The winner next month will face Republican Albert Ceccone in the Nov. 6 general election.
Kramer, 65, started his political career at the same time Potter joined the County Council. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1974 and then served two terms in the state Senate.
Growth has proved to be a potent issue in Washington's suburbs, with victory often going to the candidates able to portray themselves as the most anti-development, as witnessed by Audrey Moore's 1987 upset of John F. Herrity in Fairfax County.
Kramer said he is not anti-development, arguing that it is not responsible or healthy to close off growth. And he said he won't join those wishing to bash business as the villain of all county ills.
"Business is essential to paying the way of Montgomery County," Kramer said.
Kramer also said that schools continue to be the highest priorty for county funds, and said he has given the schools generous amounts during the last four years. But he said he considered it burdensome that the elected school board set the budget but wasn't responsible for where the money came from.
Kramer said he opposes a proposal to give the county school board its own taxing authority but believes the executive and council should play an earlier role in formulation of the budget as well as in negotiations with labor unions.
On other topics, Kramer:Said that, if elected, he would review the appointment of all his department heads as a matter of routine. He reiterated his support for Police Chief Donald E. Brooks, saying, "If I had to make the decision tomorrow, I would say Don Brooks would stay." Brooks has been under harsh criticism from the union representing police officers. Stressed his good relationship with Gov. William Donald Schaefer (D), saying it has resulted in record amounts of state aid for the county and that it will serve as a protection in the future. Schaefer, who has contributed $7,500 to Kramer's campaign, is set to visit the county next week to endorse Kramer, according to a Kramer campaign official. Said that drug and alcohol abuse continue to be a major concern but that there are some encouraging signs -- such as the decline in the number of jail inmates -- that county programs may be working. Said he believes it would be "political suicide" to raise taxes after the election but that the vagaries of the economy and state funding make it impossible to promise that he won't recommend raising taxes. Kramer said he believes there is better than a 50 percent chance that a charter amendment to tie property taxes to the rate of inflation will be approved by voters in November despite his opposition.