For more than a dozen years, Rose Crenca has been identified with the Silver Spring area, first as a civic activist, then since 1978 as a member of the Montgomery County Council. In the Sept. 11 primary election, however, Crenca is running for one of the new at-large seats on the expanded council, and that means that one of five new contenders will end up as the Democratic nominee for the District 5 seat that represents Takoma Park, Silver Spring and parts of Kensington and Wheaton.

The change comes at a time when District 5, which has 37,325 registered Democrats and a history of civic activism, faces some critical issues.

There are the highly divisive questions of what to do about the revitalization of downtown Silver Spring, whether a trolley should be built connecting Silver Spring and Bethesda, and how to cope with the worsening traffic congestion along Georgia Avenue and Route 29. Indeed, the proposed Silver Spring revival has been so controversial that political observers say Crenca, who supports a regional mall, chose to seek an at-large seat because she feared a heated fight in her own district.

All of the candidates hope to provide the answers. They are Derick Berlage, 33, a lawyer and former legislative representative for Common Cause who tops the fund-raising list with about $38,000; Marc Elrich, 40, a Takoma Park City Council member who works at a food cooperative; Susan Heltemes, 38, a project coordinator for a research firm who has managed several local political campaigns; Dianne Smith, 47, an assistant director of nursing and former PTA official who is running on a slate with County Executive Sidney Kramer, Crenca and other incumbent council members; and Elizabeth "Betsy" Taylor, 49, a former college math instructor with a long background in community affairs.

The winner will face civic activist Joan Ennis, a former Democrat turned Republican, in the Nov. 6 general election.

Here is a closer look at each of the candidates:Berlage, who lives in Silver Spring, says he is running "to restore Montgomery County's commitment to open and responsive government." The county bureaucracy, he said, has lost sight of the fact that citizens should be listened to most of all, instead of special-interest groups. For that reason, he said, he has refused to accept any campaign donations from developers, although the size of his campaign fund -- at least twice the size of other candidates' -- has led to some behind-the-scenes sniping about out-of-state influences.

"I have raised funds from my friends and relatives like anyone does for the first time," said Berlage, whose endorsements include the Sierra Club, the Montgomery County Education Association and CITPAC, a countywide coalition of civic, education and environmental leaders that has sharply criticized the county's growth policies.

"The reason I've raised more than a number of my opponents is that I announced my candidacy early, in December. I knew that I would go up against an incumbent slate of candidates with hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend."

Berlage said he would back a development tax; the Bethesda-Silver Spring trolley; the new county jail at Clarksburg; and the elimination of most or all of the executive's planning staff, saying it duplicates the county planning department.

He opposes the Silver Triangle mall, the proposed regional shopping center intended to revive downtown Silver Spring. The developer's "inability to recruit department stores gives us an opportunity to mend fences, go back to the drawing board and plan a revitalization of Silver Spring that has more support from the community," he said. Elrich, a member of the Takoma Park City Council since 1987, says he is not a party activist, but a community activist who traces his political interests to the antiwar and civil rights marches of the 1960s. He has raised about $2,500 in what he describes as a low-key campaign.

"There needs to be a different direction in the county," he said. "I think we've spent too long focusing on growth and development and too little time on the needs of the commmunity, too confident that the growth would pay for itself. There's been a real loss in terms of schools and the environment and the general quality of life."

The issue that distinguishes Elrich from the other candidates, he said, is his stand on the revival of Silver Spring. He is firmly opposed to either a regional mall or a scaled-down version of a mall, and says he would fight for lower-density development in the downtown area. "It's hypocritical," he said, "to say you're slow growth and for the Silver Spring mall."

Elrich, who has served on the board of the Silver Spring-Takoma Park Traffic Coalition as well as Neighborhoods Together, a group that fought pornography in Silver Spring and sought to ensure tenants' rights, said he is opposed to the trolley because the property around it will likely be developed. A strong supporter of recycling, he said he would propose legislation that would restrict certain product packaging. Heltemes, who spent a week of her campaign riding a sanitation truck, volunteering in a halfway house and accompanying the Takoma Park police on their nightly rounds, said that "this district faces some very unique needs and needs a person who is a strong, effective and independent advocate."

"I am not a person beholden to slates, and I am not a Johnny-come-lately," said Heltemes, adding that she has the support of the gay Democratic clubs, labor and the Maryland chapter of the National Organization for Women.

Heltemes said she has raised about $7,000 -- "Mine is a true grass-roots campaign." She has been labeled by some as "the tenants' candidate" in a district where about half the residents, including Heltemes, live in rental units. She has been chairman of the Silver Spring Center Citizens Advisory Board, which dealt with issues of housing, planning, zoning and recreation, and a member of the Silver Spring Transportation Management District, which wrestles with the problems of traffic congestion. Affordable housing and day care are two of her main concerns.

As for Silver Spring, Heltemes said "the economy will determine what happens" to the proposed mall. Smith, who as a citizen adviser has worked on various county budgets, master plans and sector plans in her 15 years as an activist, said that belonging to the Kramer slate "is a double-edged sword."

"What I was told was, 'Dianne, we need somebody on the council who is going to build consensus. We're going to have to have somebody who hasn't shut off 50 percent of the population,' " Smith said. "I will listen to both sides . . . . You've got to have leaders who can give hope to people and you can't give it until you have it yourself."

Smith, who has raised about $17,000, said she is concerned about education issues -- reducing class sizes, addressing the needs of the typical child -- as well as historic preservation and improving the coordination of county agencies, particularly those involving social services. She also is worried about affordable housing and the needs of the elderly.

In Silver Spring, she said, if the mall is built, "you've got to have someone to push for increased amenities" such as day care and a cultural center. She supports the trolley as long as the state funding remains, but adds, "I will never pay for that trolley out of county funds." Taylor, a former president of both the East Silver Spring Citizens Association and Neighborhoods Together, says she brings the knowledge of 23 years of civic activism to her candidacy. She has helped organize tenants, led a successful fight to drive two adult bookstores from Silver Spring, and lobbied for more day-care options.

She is a strong supporter, she said, of both the proposed regional mall for Silver Spring and the trolley. "We want to have a strong CBD {central business district}," she said. "We also want it to be balanced -- we want housing down there, not just offices."

The trolley linking Silver Spring and Bethesda "is a wonderful thing," she said. "It will relieve congestion on the East-West Highway, and it will lead to more use of public transit."

Other key issues, she said, include education, housing, public safety and open government. "If I'm on the council, I'm going to listen to people," she said. "I"m not going to treat them as if I'm cross-examining them."