A Sept. 6 Metro article incorrectly said that Montgomery County officials are awaiting the outcome of several investigations before making changes in their development review process. The county has already made several changes, including an increase in the number of staff reviewing new construction projects. (Published 9/7/2005)
It wasn't the kind of summer Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan had in mind when he set out to introduce himself to the rest of Maryland as their best hope for governor.
Duncan's strategy to defeat Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley for the Democratic nomination next year has been to match his rival's telegenic glamour by presenting himself as the man of substance. His calling card is his 11 years at the helm of The County That Works.
But this summer, he has had to contend with gang violence and a planning department in which documents were altered to cover up violations by developers. He's even had to have officials mediate a financial crisis at the SoccerPlex in Boyds, one of the gold-star amenities that has gained Montgomery a reputation as a shining example of suburbia.
Duncan, a candidate in all but declaration, said voters will judge him on his response to these situations, rather than fault him for their occurrence. The summer, he said, has been productive for his campaign. "We're actually further along than I thought we would be," he said.
The summer's events underscore how much Montgomery has changed since Duncan was first elected county executive in 1994. "We have more diversity, we have more poverty, we have more urbanization," said council member Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large), a Duncan backer who is running for county executive next year. One illustration of Montgomery's evolution is the decline of the white population. The 1990 Census showed that nearly 77 percent of the county was white; in 2000, the figure was less than 65 percent.
Those changes were writ large for many county residents with the Aug. 5 knife attacks at Springbrook High School in the Colesville area and at a Target store in Wheaton. Police, who have connected the bloodshed to Latino gangs, have charged 12 teenagers and young men with attempted murder and assault.
Late last month, authorities announced the indictment of 19 men on federal racketeering charges, accusing them of membership in the Latino gang Mara Salvatrucha and of involvement in murder, kidnapping and other crimes in Prince George's and Montgomery counties.
Duncan and other county leaders defend their anti-gang efforts, which include nearly $5 million spent on gang-prevention programs this year and a plan to build a youth center with Prince George's County. After the stabbings, Duncan observed that the County Council this year had declined to fund his request for six additional detectives for the police force's gang unit.
Council President Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring), while noting that gang-related violence has declined nationally since the mid-1990s, said the county needs a "bold and comprehensive strategy" to address the recent attacks in Montgomery.
A potential political danger zone for Duncan is the nexus between gang activity and immigration. Duncan often touts his embrace of diversity and his background as the son of a French immigrant. The perception that gang-related violence is rising "ignites the whole simmering issue of illegal immigration," said Blair Lee, a political commentator and Duncan supporter.
In addition, county officials are struggling to devise a strategy to address planning problems that came to light this summer after Clarksburg residents discovered that hundreds of homes in their community were built in violation of height and setback limits.
Last week, the director of the county Department of Park and Planning announced his retirement, citing the need for a "fresh view" to get beyond the controversy. A junior planner resigned in June after acknowledging that she altered a site plan to make it appear that the Clarksburg homes had been built in line with the Planning Board's rulings.
Lee called Clarksburg a "black eye" for Duncan and said it is "embarrassing when you can't get height and setback right."
The council is the ultimate overseer of land use and the Department of Park and Planning. Duncan controls the county's Department of Permitting Services, which shares enforcement responsibility with the planning department. It remains unclear to what extent either agency is responsible for the lapses uncovered in Clarksburg.
Duncan initially responded by imposing a freeze on the issuance of new building permits, a move that analysts saw as an attempt to distance himself from developers who have often backed his campaigns. The freeze has effectively thawed, Duncan spokesman David Weaver said. County officials are awaiting the outcome of several investigations before instituting changes.
In the late 1990s, Duncan supported the creation of the SoccerPlex, a multifield facility run by a nonprofit organization on county land leased for $1 a year. In July, several area soccer organizations wrote to Duncan that the venture "is broken and needs to be fixed" and complained about high fees. Silverman has said the facility, which was supposed to become self-supporting over time, may need a county subsidy.
Duncan supporters suggest, in a bit of glass-is-half-full theorizing, that these difficulties may serve Montgomery politicians who seek statewide office. The more troubled the county is, this thinking goes, the less that Montgomery's leaders will be dismissed as the representatives of a rich, liberal suburb out of touch with the rest of the state.
Duncan's aides say that people elsewhere in the state appreciate his record more when they learn how Montgomery has changed.
Black voters in Baltimore, Weaver said, have been "favorably impressed" after learning that minorities outnumber white students in county schools, where some test scores show that the minority achievement gap is narrowing.
Isiah Leggett, a former state Democratic Party chairman who is running for county executive, observed that Montgomery remains an enviable place. "When someone challenges him about some of the recent problems we've had," he said, referring to Duncan, "the question is: Compared to what? That's not a road too many people will go down." Leggett has not publicly favored either Duncan or O'Malley for governor.
"I don't think anyone in Maryland wants to have their neighborhood become more like Baltimore," Lee said.
Perez, who is considering a bid for attorney general, said it is too soon to tell whether the problems in Montgomery will affect the political fortunes of its leaders.
"If we don't fix the problems, it certainly creates a potential vulnerability," he said. Perez also has not endorsed a Democratic candidate for governor.
Herb Smith, a political scientist at McDaniel College in Westminster, said news of Montgomery's summertime blues "didn't make the radar in the Baltimore area." Duncan himself, Smith added, only "somewhat" shows up on that radar. "It's mostly along the lines of: 'Isn't he the guy running against O'Malley?' "