Orderly, decorous Montgomery County is often belittled for being out of step with the more rough-and-tumble politics elsewhere in Maryland, but this election year Montgomery appears to fit right in.
An incumbent, seen as a shoo-in for reelection, was picked off in the primary. Taxpayers, angry over rising bills, forced three tax-limitation measures onto the ballot. Candidates in Montgomery and elsewhere, defeated in the primary, refused to accept their losses and are fighting back with write-in bids.
At the center of this storm is Neal Potter, a 75-year-old workaholic with Boy Scout ways, who was reluctant to go after the job but now finds himself poised to lead Maryland's largest jurisdiction.
Potter, who defeated County Executive Sidney Kramer in a Democratic primary framed by issues of growth and development and is facing him anew in a contest over competence, is the most unlikely of politicians, and that -- in these times -- is his appeal.
"The message I see is that a lot of people just are upset with government," said Montgomery Planning Chairman Gus Bauman.
"The frustration is with the arrogance of power a lot of government officials have. I expect Neal Potter is a symbol of that frustration, and that is why he is probably going to win on Tuesday," Bauman added.
The voter discontent behind Potter's primary win, which shows up when people complain about their taxes or grumble about being stuck in traffic, is not unique to Montgomery. It was a factor in elections in Massachusetts. It was apparent in the dismay people had when Congress and the president couldn't come up with a budget.
And, it's a discernible presence across Maryland as the state's 2.1 million registered voters enter the final days of an election season that has turned out more colorful and suspenseful than ever imagined.
Republicans -- outnumbered in voter registration by more than 2 to 1 -- see the anti-incumbent sentiment as a vehicle to edge the state closer to true two-party status. Their best hopes are capturing the county executive jobs in Baltimore and Anne Arundel, snaring the 1st Congressional District seat from incumbent Roy P. Dyson and picking up state legsislative and county council seats in Howard, Montgomery and other fast-growing suburbs.
Taxpayer groups, saying they had had it with skyrocketing assessments, successfully collected signatures to force tax limitation measures onto ballots in Montgomery, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties. Their shared grievance has been a distrust of politicians so great that they say the rules of government need changing.
Even Gov. William Donald Schaefer, virtually assured of reelection to a second term, has felt the anti-incumbency fervor. It accounted for the 22 percent protest vote garnered by his token primary opponent, claimed some of his political allies in the primary and threatens more in the general election.
Schaefer has responded with a whistle-stop campaign that has crisscrossed the state in a bid to boost Democrats, and more importantly, the governor's own popularity.
"If there is one lesson from this election year, it's this: You can't take the voter for granted," said Isiah Leggett, a Democratic Montgomery County Council member seeking reelection.
The race for county executive is unlike any other in Montgomery politics. County Council President William E. Hanna Jr., a Potter running mate, said that if he had been told six months ago of all of the bizarre twists and turns, "I would have said Grimm had written one more fairy tale."
Kramer, 65, a businessman who made a successful second career in local and state politics, had been such a heavy favorite to win a second term that he had been talking about eventually running for governor. It seemed Kramer -- who presided over a squeaky-clean government that largely seemed to satisfy the county's residents -- would have little in the way of real competition.
But hours before the July filing deadline, Potter -- who had backed out of an agreement to run for council reelection on a Kramer ticket -- ended his retirement plans and decided to take on Kramer. And, with no money, no organization and little time, Potter was taking on politics-as-usual.
"Neal Potter, I read, had a long-standing tradition of slow growth, and I think while there is a time you need development, things have gotten out of hand," said Robert M. Silber, 35, a lawyer who voted for Potter in the primary.
Kay R. Travis, a real estate agent, also opted for Potter: "I think I was one of those not-well-thought-out 'Let's turn the incumbents out' kind of people."
Kramer lost to Potter, 52 percent to 48 percent. After he graciously conceded defeat and vowed to support Potter, it looked as if the Democratic nominee would have an easy time against Republican candidate Albert Ceccone, a 44-year-old Chevy Chase businessman. Ceccone has run unsuccessfully for office six times and has failed to emerge as any real force in a county where Democrats outnumber Republicans.
However, the election became recharged with Kramer's surprise announcement that he would run as a write-in. Kramer, estranging himself from the Democratic Party establishment that nurtured his political career, said that he had been inundated with calls from people with misgivings about Potter and that he was the only candidate able to manage the county through the troubling economic times ahead.
After that write-in came a rash of others, for Senate incumbents ousted in the primary on the abortion issue and a council seat.
However, aside from the Democratic Party-backed effort in Prince George's County to write in Takoma Park Mayor Stephen J. Del Giudice for the County Council, few are as serious as the Kramer campaign.
Write-in campaigns are historically unsuccessful, and Kramer has to contend with a backlash that sees his run as little more than sour grapes. One poll last week showed him trailing with 17 percent of the vote. But, as one civic activist supporting Potter put it, "When Kramer got back into the race, everyone was laughing. People aren't laughing now."
The low-budget Kramer write-in has a spirit that was lacking from his well-heeled but lackluster primary effort. In recent days, the campaign has turned sharply negative, with Kramer slamming Potter's support of new taxes and saying he is insensitive to women, senior citizens and the disabled.
Potter has responded with a grueling campaign schedule, from early morning Metro stops to late night candidates' forums. He has spurned the suggestion from some advisers that as the front-runner he lay low.
Potter said, "I try to tell people what I think so they are voting for something more than a propaganda piece . . . . There has to be something more important than getting in office and staying in office."