Real estate developers, whose deep pockets for years made them the lifeblood of local politics, have emerged as the Willie Hortons of the 1990 campaign season.
And like 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis, who found himself battered at every campaign stop by the furlough of convicted murderer Horton, local candidates are now doing a two-step to distance themselves from the suddenly suspect "development interests" that once financed their campaigns.
In the suburbs, developers find themselves portrayed as plunderers out to pillage the last remains of once-bucolic countryside, leaving gridlock and crowded schools in their wake. In the majority black District of Columbia, the issue is more complex, with serious racial overtones.
"I don't think there's an intrinsic racial issue here, but the simple fact is that more of the so-called developer fat cats happen to be white," said Bill Jarvis, the campaign manager for his aunt, mayoral candidate Charlene Drew Jarvis.
"When you talk about old neighborhoods that are gutted and business districts left vacant and fallow, you're talking about white developers. And there's a tremendous resentment among black families when they're pushed out and reap none of the benefits."
The Jarvis campaign has gone to great lengths to link competitor John Ray to developers. One television commercial shows a list of campaign contributions to Ray, followed by the question "Who owns John Ray?"
The answer comes in a secretive whisper: "Real estate developers."
The issue is potent in the suburbs too. At Metro stops in Montgomery County, veteran County Council member Neal Potter, a Democratic candidate for county executive, distributes campaign brochures that say the choice is between "a well-heeled ticket with big money from developers or a candidate supported by people working to preserve their homes, their communities, their environment."
Incumbent Democrat Sidney Kramer, who has received widespread support from developers in his campaigns, has been on the defensive in a county where a recent Washington Post poll showed that nearly 80 percent of Democratic voters believe real estate developers have too much influence.
In Prince George's, County Executive Parris N. Glendening, who once proudly proclaimed himself "unabashedly pro-development," finds himself hounded by a field of political opponents who accuse him of engineering sweetheart land transactions for connected developers. Glendening vehemently denies the allegations, but "everywhere we go, people want to know about it. It's on everyone's mind," says his long-shot challenger, Artie L. Polk, of Mitchellville.
As developers see the theme repeated in political contests from Northern Virginia to the outer suburbs of Maryland, they have become not only defensive, but also bitter. After all, they say, the building industry is not only the Washington area's second-largest employer but a major source of the tax revenue that keeps local governments running.
"Developers have become the whipping boys for virtually everything that has gone wrong and every failure of elected officials across this region," said Louis Cohen, a Prince George's County developer who is president of the Suburban Maryland Building Industry Association.
"Many of the candidates -- especially the non-incumbents -- are using populist rhetoric. They're running their campaigns based on condemnations of the villain. The chosen villain for the moment, and certainly the most visible, is the development community.
"If they all find themselves living in tents or in the road, then maybe they'll come to see that some of their populist ideas are not absolutely correct," Cohen said.
Said Robert Linowes, who heads one of the region's largest zoning law firms and participated in the development of Montgomery Mall in Bethesda: "I think quite a number of developers are justifiably annoyed when they are being sought after and they respond and then find they are being maligned.
"It's a case of 'Gimme, and now that I've got, goodbye.' . . . There seems to be a feeling that you lose your citizenship if you become a developer. Or at least that occurs after you make your donation."
After a yearlong debate in the General Assembly over the ethics of developer campaign contributions to members of the Prince George's County Council, the 50,000-member Suburban Maryland Building Association now discourages builders from making individual donations to candidates. The group's official policy statement, which was distributed earlier this year, has hardly stopped the flow of developer dollars to candidates, but industry officials believe it has significantly slowed the pace of contributions.
"The problem is that the local politicians have not been putting in the roads, the parks, the infrastructure to keep up with the growth," said Michael T. Rose, a prominent Prince George's County developer who is chairman of BuildPac. "There are a few candidates out there trying to say that developers are the cause of growth, but we can't take responsibility for that. The people are not as concerned about development as they are about the issues that come with growth: transportation, schools, parks and open spaces."
Some civic activists dispute that argument, insisting that fast-paced development in the area has not paid its way. In both Prince George's and Montgomery counties, local governments have begun pressuring developers to pay the costs of roads and infrastructure improvements that become necessary when housing and office projects go up. Potter has called for a special tax on development, which Kramer opposes.
Potter and the civic activists who support his campaign have made much of Kramer's developer contributions. Kramer campaign manager Lanny Davis said that about half of the nearly $280,000 Kramer has raised came from the development industry or professionals who do some work for developers, although citizens groups and newspaper studies say the number is higher.
A Montgomery County taxpayers group called Fairness in Taxation has urged residents to vote against candidates who derive more than a third of their campaign funds from the development community, contending in a news release that developers don't give large sums to candidates "unless they expect something in return."
Some politicians say that while they now have reservations about taking developer money, they believe it would be unfair to exclude builders from the political process.
Montgomery County Council member Bruce T. Adams worked for eight years with Common Cause, the citizens lobby that works for open government and campaign finance reform, and has set a limit on his own campaign solicitations from developers.
"My comfort level stops at about 25 percent," he said.
"I do not want to be in the developer's pocket, but I don't want to polarize the debate and say all developers are bad."