Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D), who represents portions of Montgomery County in the U.S. House, may eventually decide to run for the Senate, but three dozen Montgomery residents are hosting a big-money fundraiser next week for a possible opponent in next year's race, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin.

Cardin, who represents Maryland's 3rd District, which includes parts of Baltimore and Howard, Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, announced his candidacy in April for the Democratic nomination to replace retiring Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D).

Kweisi Mfume, former head of the NAACP, also is a candidate for the Democratic nomination. Van Hollen, whose district includes about half of Montgomery and a small part of Prince George's County, also is considering entering the race.

But several elected officials and political donors, some of whom supported Van Hollen in his past races, apparently aren't waiting for him to make up his mind.

Jill Lesser, vice president for domestic public policy at America Online Inc., will host a fundraiser for Cardin next Thursday at her Chevy Chase home. Tickets range from $500 to $2,100.

Sponsors of the event include a who's who of leaders in Montgomery's business, political and Jewish communities, including Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin, real estate developers James Cafritz and Morton Funger, and Funger's wife, Norma Lee.

Several Washington lobbyists, including Bob Moss and his wife, Kate, John Orlando, Larry Harris and Mike Berman, also are listed as sponsors.

Annapolis lobbyist Larry Levitan also is a host, as is R. Scott Pastrick, former treasurer of the Democratic National Committee. Saul Stern, a retired Bethesda business executive, and June A. Rogul, both longtime Jewish activists, are also helping Cardin, who is Jewish, raise money in Montgomery.

Del. Sheila E. Hixson (D-Montgomery), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee in the Maryland House of Delegates, state Sen. Ida G. Ruben (D-Montgomery) and County Council member Michael L. Subin (D-At Large) also are helping sponsor the event.

Montgomery Del. Luiz R.S. Simmons (D) isn't one of the sponsors, but he says Cardin will have substantial support in Montgomery, even if Van Hollen gets into the race.

"He is a man of great humility and integrity, and right now it is not as if he needs to persuade people of his abilities," said Simmons, who is backing Cardin. "People know him to be an enormously able man, and I would say Cardin has a great reach and that reach extends into Montgomery County."

Fire Up the Grill

Montgomery County firefighters, who have been politically active for years, now have a new weapon in their political arsenal: food.

The Montgomery County Career Firefighters Association recently bought a giant grill that can be trucked to events to quickly cook hundreds of pounds of meat for barbecues or picnics.

Last week, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) called on union members to cook barbecue chicken, hamburgers, hot dogs, and pit turkey and beef at a fundraiser in Prince George's County.

John J. Sparks, president of the firefighters union, said his members were glad to assist Duncan, who earlier this year helped push an expensive new firefighters contract through the County Council.

Sparks said Duncan got the idea to use the grill while attending a fundraiser earlier this year for council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty), who also used the firefighters' cooking skills at his event.

Sparks wasn't sure how much the union spent on the food for Duncan's event, which attracted about 500 people, but estimates it was "hundreds and hundreds of dollars." Once fully calculated, Sparks said the food will be considered an "in-kind" donation to Duncan's campaign.

But candidates who vote against the firefighters' wishes shouldn't even bother to try to get firefighters to cater their next event.

"We will do it either for candidates who we have not taken a position on, or those who we support," Sparks said.

Silverman Opens HQ

In another sign that next year's race for county executive is starting unusually early, council member Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large) has opened a campaign headquarters.

Silverman, who will face former council member Isiah Leggett in next year's Democratic primary for county executive, opened a 2,000-square-foot office at 11900 Parklawn Dr. in Rockville on Monday.

"We've got a half-dozen people working with us this summer, plus a bunch of kids, and we needed space, so it's time to get moving," Silverman. "I wanted something in the center of the county, so this will be a place for volunteers to continue our outreach efforts to the community."

Leggett said in an interview that he doesn't see a need to open a headquarters until later this year or early next year, but he said his campaign is well underway. Leggett, formerly head of the Maryland Democratic Party, has been hosting dozens of meet-and-greets with various county constituencies and interest groups.

He also has hired Tracy Terrell, who worked as a Maryland coordinator for Sen. John F. Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign, to serve as his field coordinator.

Duncan, Perez Talk Taxes

County homeowners opening their mail next month might think they have received campaign literature from Duncan and Council President Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring). But the letter will be an official notification of fiscal 2006 tax rates.

Following this spring's grueling battle in the County Council, Perez and Duncan are sending every homeowner a letter on July 1 detailing the council's budget decisions on how much tax relief to offer residents.

Despite opposition from Duncan, the council responded to record property assessments by cutting the property tax rate by 4 cents and giving an additional property tax credit of $116 to every resident. The council decided to stick to a voter-imposed property tax cap for the first time in four years.

Duncan, who wanted to override the charter limit by a record $67 million, was a vocal critic of the council's budget. He submitted a budget that included a 2-cent reduction in the property tax rate, arguing the county couldn't afford a larger tax cut. He instead supported tax credits for residents on fixed incomes, which the council also supported.

But all that background is lost in Duncan and Perez's letter.

Instead, it highlights many of the same themes Duncan plans to focus on in his all-but-declared campaign for governor.

"Montgomery County has enjoyed great success over the years with a strong economy, record growth, historic educational gains and safe streets," the letter begins. "This progress didn't happen by chance. It was achieved through hard work and a commitment to making this a better community."

The second paragraph then attempts to connect rising property assessments to investments in the county school system.

"The challenges we face today are the result of our success. Our strong economy and nationally ranked school system mean that more people want to call Montgomery County home, and property values are on the rise," it says.

In the third paragraph, Duncan and Perez take a swipe at Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who supported a 5-cent increase in the state property tax rate in 2003. "However, increasing property values also mean rising state property assessments. Coupled with the governor's nickel increase in the state's property tax rate, every family budget is feeling the squeeze. . . . That's why the county's fiscal year 2006 budget includes $85 million in property tax cuts and credits."