Montgomery County Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg) officially broke ranks with his colleagues last week and endorsed a November ballot initiative to eliminate at-large seats on the council in favor of nine district seats.

But his position was quickly challenged by state Sen. Jennie M. Forehand (D-Montgomery), who rebutted Andrews by using one of the oldest tricks in a Montgomery County politician's political playbook: bring up Baltimore.

The Montgomery County Civic Federation, a nonpartisan group made up mainly of neighborhood civic associations, is supporting a ballot question to create nine single-member districts, each of which would serve about 110,000 residents. The council is made up of four at-large members and five others who represent districts.

Most council members strongly oppose the change and plan to organize a campaign to defeat it.

But Andrews, the former executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, told the Ashbury Methodist Village Democratic Club that he supports the change as a way of reducing developers' influence in county government.

Because at-large candidates run countywide, Andrews said it costs an average of $150,000 to seek election, which gives an advantage to candidates who have the support of deep-pocketed developers.

"It distorts the process and results in a huge disadvantage to the candidate that does not share [developers'] views," Andrews said, adding that he thinks single-member districts will make the council "more responsive to people that are concerned about issues in the district."

After his remarks, Andrews began taking questions from the crowd of about 50 senior citizens. Forehand, who was sitting in the audience, quickly stood up and began making her own speech on why voters should reject the referendum.

To make her case, Forehand warned that single-member districts could cause the Montgomery County Council to start resembling the Baltimore City Council, which also has single-member districts.

"Baltimore City is a perfect example of this," Forehand said. "They get mired in everything."

Forehand went on to tell the audience how Baltimore council members fail to see the big picture on many issues and are forced to strike backroom deals to get anything accomplished.

"Someone has to be looking out for the vision of the whole county," Forehand said. "If you are just campaigning in your little district, you don't know what is going on countywide."

When he finally got the floor back, Andrews reminded the audience that Forehand, as a state senator, represents a single-member district.

Van Hollen Lines Up Support

There isn't any question this year about which candidate is favored by abortion rights, gun control and environmental organizations in the 8th District race for Congress.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) began his fall campaign Sunday by announcing that he has the backing of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, Clean Water Action, the Council for a Livable World, the League of Conservation Voters, the Million Mom March, NARAL Pro-Choice America, the National Education Association, the National Organization for Women, Planned Parenthood Action Fund and the Sierra Club.

Two years ago, those groups were deeply divided over whether to support Van Hollen or stick with then-incumbent Constance A. Morella (R), who had amassed a strong record on environmental, gun control and abortion rights issues.

This year, Republican Chuck Floyd, a retired military officer and state department employee, is challenging Van Hollen. Although many political observers consider him a long shot, Floyd continues to run an active race.

Last week, he launched the first television spot of the campaign. The 30-second ad promotes his service in the military and as a "national security expert" while showing a video clip of him and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

Chuck Westover, Van Hollen's campaign manager, said he wasn't sure whether the congressman -- who advertised heavily in 2002 -- would be spending money on television ads this year.

Duncan to El Salvador?

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) may be traveling to El Salvador next year.

Last week, Duncan hosted El Salvador's ambassador to the United States, Rene Antonio Leon Rodriguez, at the county office building in Rockville to discuss the county's growing Hispanic population and potential economic development partnership opportunities.

During the visit, the ambassador invited Duncan to tour his Central American country.

David Weaver, a Duncan spokesman, said the county executive tentatively agreed and will try to arrange a delegation, including Dels. Ana Sol Gutierrez (D-Montgomery) and Victor R. Ramirez (D-Prince George's), both of whom are natives of El Salvador, to travel to the country next year.

Words, Then Action

Council President Steven A. Silverman (D-At large) appeared to be straddling the fence this week in the debate over whether the county should begin importing Canadian prescription drugs.

On Monday, Silverman joined Duncan in sending a letter to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) requesting that he seek a waiver from the Food and Drug Administration to allow county employees to obtain lower-cost Canadian drugs.

"We have a health care crisis, and we are looking to the federal government to step up to the plate," Silverman said.

Several other council members, including Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring) and Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County), immediately rejected the idea, saying the waiver request was simply a stalling tactic.

On Tuesday, Silverman joined six other colleagues in passing the council resolution authorizing county agencies to begin exploring ways to obtain the Canadian drugs, even without FDA approval.

"Today, what we are saying is if the state won't step up to the plate and the federal government won't, then we will," Silverman said before he cast his vote.

In an interview later, Silverman said: "I don't think my position is murky. I prefer to get a waiver, but I do not share the county executive's position that we do nothing without a waiver."