Former council member Isiah Leggett says he's girding for a tough campaign to win the Democratic nomination for county executive now that his opponent, council member Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large), has hired several national political consultants.

Last week, Silverman announced he had hired several of the architects of Virginia Gov.-elect Timothy M. Kaine's (D) successful campaign. Silverman's direct-mail operation will be headed by Chris Cooper and Geoff Mackler, who work for District-based MSHC Partners Inc. The company is headed by Hal Malchow, who along with Cooper handled Kaine's direct mail. Malchow also headed President Clinton's direct-mail effort in 1996. Karl Struble and David Eichenbaum, who were both top Kaine aides, will be heading Silverman's media advertising strategy.

Leggett said he expects a campaign similar to the one County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) ran in 2002, in which his opponents on the County Council were unseated.

Duncan, with Silverman as a close ally, poured several hundred thousand dollars into an "End Gridlock" slate of candidates who supported several transportation projects, including the planned intercounty connector.

The candidates bombarded voters with recorded telephone calls and negative mail targeting Democratic council members Blair G. Ewing (D-At Large) and Phil Andrews (D-Rockville). Ewing, who decried the campaign as unfair, lost his seat.

"We may have turned a negative corner at that point -- from a campaign of issues and substance to one of pure politics," Leggett said.

Silverman, who helped Duncan organize the "End Gridlock" campaign, countered that it is absurd for Leggett to imply that hiring national consultants means the campaign will resort to negative tactics. Silverman noted that previous candidates for Montgomery County executive aired television ads and hired pollsters.

As it turns out, MSHC Partners was also the company Duncan and the "End Gridlock" slate used in 2002, according to Silverman.

"It is reasonable to predict we will see the same below-the-belt tactics used again in the county races next year," said Andrews, who is supporting Leggett.

As for the consulting firm Silverman chose to handle television advertising, its work for Kaine was generally praised as more positive than the campaign of his Republican opponent, former Virginia attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore.

Earlier this year, Struble Eichenbaum Communications produced a controversial ad for the National Abortion Rights Action League. The ad said U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. sided with extremists, including a convicted bomber of abortion clinics. It was quickly pulled following outrage from Republicans and Democrats alike.

But Silverman said his consultants' past efforts should not be viewed as an indicator of the kind of race he plans.

"I am going to run a positive, issues-oriented campaign," Silverman said.

Duncan's List Loses One

One of the worst-kept secrets in Montgomery County politics is that Duncan spent months aggressively working the phones to get local officials to endorse his campaign for governor.

In some cases, politicians report getting more than a half-dozen calls from Duncan or his associates asking for their support.

On Monday, the pressure appeared to pay off. At a rally, Duncan's campaign distributed a list of 50 current or former elected officials they said endorsed him.

But at least one person on that list, county school board member Valerie Ervin (Silver Spring), said she never agreed to endorse Duncan.

"My name was used without my permission, and I have not made a commitment to Doug Duncan's campaign," said Ervin, adding that she personally had told Duncan she did not want her name used.

But Jody Couser, Duncan's campaign spokeswoman, said Ervin had "indicated" her support. "If there has been a misunderstanding about her support, we certainly apologize," Couser said.

Law Professor vs. Lawmaker?

Jamin Raskin, a well-known law professor at American University, is considering challenging state Sen. Ida G. Ruben (D) in next year's District 20 Democratic primary.

"I think we need progressive leaders who will defend the wonderful diversity of our communities," said Raskin, who lives in Takoma Park.

Raskin, 42, is director of American University Washington College of Law's Program on Law and Government. A former editor of the Harvard Law Review, Raskin also represents tenants fighting condominium conversions.

For the past eight years, he's also served as State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler's campaign manager.

If he runs, Raskin will be the first serious challenger Ruben has faced in years. She was first elected to the Senate in 1986. Before that, Ruben was a delegate representing District 20, which includes the Takoma Park area and part of Silver Spring.

Raskin said he "respects" Ruben but thinks it's time for a change.

Ruben said she's ready for the challenge.

"It's a democratic state. Democracy is in full force, and if he wants to run, he can run," Ruben said. "I am running on my record of 31 years."

Frosh's Probability Puzzle

There continues to be buzz that state Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D) is thinking about running for attorney general if incumbent J. Joseph Curran Jr. (D) decides not to seek reelection.

But in an interview this week, Frosh said his running "is probably less probable than more probable."

Even if Curran decides not to seek another term, Frosh said he would be leery of running against some of his friends, most notably Council President Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring) and Prince George's County Del. Anthony G. Brown (D), who are also considering running for attorney general if Curran doesn't.

A New Voice of Conservatism

A Silver Spring Republican is joining Robin Ficker, a GOP candidate for county executive, in running for local office to give voters a fiscally conservative alternative in next year's election.

Mark Fennel announced last week that he is running for a seat on the County Council. Fennel plans to team with Ficker, who so far is the only announced Republican candidate for county executive. Fennel said he will run either at large or for the council's 4th District, which includes the northeastern part of the county.

Fennel is the manager of membership services at Citizens Against Government Waste, a District-based organization that scrutinizes government spending.

Along with Ficker, Fennel decries the rapid growth in county spending since Duncan took office in 1994.

In 1998, Montgomery had a $2 billion annual budget. Earlier this year, the County Council passed a $3.6 billion spending plan.

"The Montgomery County Council's record on spending is just as horrendous as the Republicans' record on spending in Congress," said Fennel, 40.

Ficker and Fennel are pledging to ferret out wasteful spending.

Ficker has gathered 14,000 signatures to put a referendum on next year's ballot asking voters to create a Commission on Fiscal Waste and Duplication.

If approved, the six-member commission would scour the budget for savings.

Keeping the Lines Open at 911

Montgomery County recently launched a nationwide search for a new director for its 911 Emergency Communications Center.

After working for the county for roughly four years, former director Steve Souder retired on Nov. 1. Operations Manager Mary Beth Nolan-Taylor, who joined the police department in 1985, is overseeing the communications center while the search is underway for a director.

Staff writer Ernesto Londono contributed to this report.