For politicians who ran in last week's primary elections, one message from voters was about development, and it was loud and clear.
In the District, political newcomer Sharon Pratt Dixon handily upset the Democratic Party favorite, council member John Ray, who could not shake being labeled the largest recipient of contributions from development interests.
In Montgomery County, council member Neal Potter, a slow-growth advocate, defeated incumbent Sidney Kramer for the Democratic nomination for county executive by focusing much of his campaign on Kramer's contributions from developers.
In those two cases, discontent about developers stemmed from different sources. Montgomery voters appeared to respond to a strong message that growth had gone too far. In the District, criticisms about Ray's development ties were subtly racial: For the most part, the developers who helped finance his campaign were white suburbanites.
"What happened to some of these front-runners is that somehow or other the perception was created in the voters' minds that things had gotten out of balance," said Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening, who won his own Democratic primary by a landslide. "These elections prove that citizens just aren't going to sit there and watch their roads and schools get so crowded that the quality of life is no longer there."
The anti-growth backlash, although not as powerful elsewhere, did not stop at the Montgomery County line. In Prince George's County, where officials have actively courted development, the reigning Democratic administration for the first time found itself defending its policies. Rapidly growing Howard County also had a strong anti-development movement, although not forceful enough to help three slow-growth advocates win election.
"This is a warning to all elected officials, not just on the local level but in Virginia, to our senators and delegates, that the public is demanding that we control development. That doesn't mean stop it; it just means plan it and control it," said Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Audrey Moore, who closely followed the Montgomery County race as a gauge for her own reelection campaign next year.
As this year's primaries approached, there were signs of growing concern about developers and the influence they can wield in elections.
According to a Washington Post poll conducted several weeks before the primaries, 78 percent of those surveyed in Montgomery County felt that real estate developers had too much political influence. In Prince George's, 73 percent of respondents had the same concern. In the District, 59 percent feared the political power of real estate interests.
"We're talking about business people, who spend money with the idea of getting a return," said William Jensen, of Aspen Hill, a retired federal administrative law judge. "It concerns me when the majority of all the various collections for candidate comes from development interests. In that sense, they already run the county."
The anti-growth political movement had its regional beginnings in 1987 in Fairfax County when then-Supervisor Moore trounced County Board Chairman John F. Herrity.
Moore, who had been the lone voice on the board urging development controls, won by capitalizing on voter frustration over the congested highways that had come to symbolize the county's explosive development.
The election that year became not only a development referendum but also represented "the turning of the tide on the whole issue. The voters just stood up and revolted," said Moore's administrative aide, Marty Machowsky.
"Herrity's position was that we could outgrow our problems, and let the good times roll. But when people are frustrated, they find someone to lash out at. This week, they lashed out at Sid Kramer. Three years ago, they lashed out at Jack Herrity. In between, they lash out at developers. It's up to government to keep things in balance," said Harris Miller, the county's Democratic Party chairman.
In this week's primaries, politicians tied to developers took their worst bashing in Montgomery County, where the 75-year-old Potter, a 20-year council veteran, painted Kramer, a multimillionaire businessman, as the candidate of business interests. He repeatedly attacked Kramer's acceptance of developer campaign contributions and blasted major projects, such as the redevelopment of downtown Silver Spring and construction of a Silver Spring-Bethesda trolley.
Although Kramer briefly stopped accepting developers' contributions toward the end of the campaign, he could not repair the damage. His aides believe that once Kramer was tagged as the "development candidate," he also suffered a backlash from the negative political advertisements that ran in the District against Ray.
"There wasn't time after the accusations were made for Sid Kramer to clarify his positions on growth," said Jim Goeden, head of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce.
"Anyone who wants to become an elected official is going to have to be very careful to make certain that their identity is known by the public. In the case of this county, 80 percent of the people thought it was a nifty place to live but they never identified Sid Kramer with it," said Kramer's aide, Edmond F. Rovner. "There was no way of knowing he was anything other than a millionaire with a lot of development friends."
In Prince George's, a county that has courted developers with cheap land and favorable zoning decisions, candidates felt the beginnings of an anti-growth backlash after a long public debate on the ethics of developers' campaign contributions. But Glendening, who in the past has declared himself "unabashedly pro-development," won his bid for a third term by a landslide after stressing on the campaign trail a "balanced" approach to growth.
Although concern about development is growing in Howard County, the fears were not broad enough to determine the outcome of Tuesday's elections. Three slow-growth advocates running for county office -- all relative newcomers -- lost in the primary, partly because of their limited financial backing.
Incumbent Elizabeth Bobo, who was victorious in her bid for the party's nomination for county executive, said that while growth remains an important issue, residents have not been as profoundly affected by development as their neighbors in congested Montgomery County. "The people want to see growth managed, which is what we did," she said.
Although virtually the entire downtown of the District and numerous other pockets have been redeveloped in the last few years, the D.C. primary elections were not principally over development, but over the role of developers in city politics. Dixon, unlike D.C. mayoral candidates Charlene Drew Jarvis and Walter E. Fauntroy, did not make a major issue of Ray's development ties.
But charges by Fauntroy that Ray was the "Great White Hope" of suburban developers may have fueled concern among District residents that outside business interests would have too much influence over city affairs.
"What Washingtonians are interested in is people who are of the District and who have the District's best interest at heart, who feel this is a good place to live and not just a good place to invest," said Dixon fund-raiser Carlotta Miles. "You have to make the connection of big money not being big black money. The big money seems to be not all living here."
Staff writers John Ward Anderson, Dan Beyers, David Hilzenrath, Richard Morin and Howard Schneider contributed to this report.