On the Sunday before Election Day, Neal Potter, candidate for Montgomery County executive, piled into a 1929 Packard convertible with his younger brother Buzz Potter, 68, at the wheel and sped off on a campaign cavalcade.
When Potter returned to headquarters, the story goes, he was carrying an armful of used "Potter for County Executive" posters. "Did vandals tear down the posters," asked Potter's puzzled volunteers. "No," answered Potter, "I took them down myself. They were illegally posted to utility poles."
That's Neal Potter. Perfectionist, grandfather, bird-watcher, square-dance enthusiast and the 75-year-old Boy Scout who's expected to become Montgomery County's top elected official.
On Tuesday, county Democrats ignored the guidance of most newspaper editors, Gov. Schaefer, former U.S. representative Mike Barnes, former county executive Charlie Gilchrist, an expensive last-minute media barrage and the conventional wisdom to hand Potter a dramatic upset victory over incumbent Sidney Kramer.
How did he do it? With luck, savvy and a lot of determination.
Potter got into the race, by his own account, more to voice his views than to be county executive. Potter postponed his retirement and filed for county executive minutes before the deadline only because no one else would run.
His strategy was simple. Hammer at overdevelopment and "bossism," organize Kramer's assorted critics into a low-budget, grass-roots campaign and pray for a miracle.
Their prayers were answered not by a miracle but by a series of mistakes from the Kramer campaign.
Panicked, it appears, by Potter's last-minute candidacy, Kramer's strategists tried to duck the overdevelopment tag by pinning it on Potter and his 20-year council tenure. Their effort backfired miserably. Kramer's TV ads blaming runaway growth on Potter were like the GM commercials claiming Chevys are better than Toyotas. No one believed them.
To win, Kramer needed to raise the issue of administrative ability -- a big Potter question mark. Instead, Kramer's strategy was to ask: "Which candidate do you believe?" That played right into Potter's long suit -- integrity.
As the campaign turned into a soap opera narrated by the media, Kramer emerged as the shadowy bad guy compromised by developer money, and Potter emerged as the sympathetic hero fighting city hall.
With no real contests at the top of the ballot, the Potter vs. Kramer melodrama received broad media attention, a boost for Potter who didn't have advertising money. He was aided, too, by a countywide chorus of council and statehouse candidates echoing Potter's overdevelopment theme in their own campaigns.
The impact was devastating. At almost every polling place, voters responded to Potter's message.
The up-county, solid for Kramer against David Scull in 1986, was swept by Potter, especially along the traffic-congested I-270 corridor.
Likewise, Potter rolled up huge margins in the Takoma Park and Silver Spring precincts threatened by Lloyd Moore's Silver Spring development project.
Chevy Chase and parts of Bethesda, hit by skyrocketing property-tax assessments and opposed to the Bethesda-Silver Spring trolley project, also turned on Kramer.
"People weren't voting for Neal; they were voting against Sid," says Tom Stone, a Kramer operative. He says people were mad at Kramer for the Travillah quarry, the Clarksburg jail, the Dickerson incinerator and so on. In fact Kramer's vote margins took a nose dive in each of these communities specially affected by particular projects.
Kramer, one of Maryland's top Jewish elected officials, even lost support this time among the voters in predominantly Jewish neighborhoods, where turnout was low. For example, in Kemp Mill, Kramer's home precinct until 1987, turnout plummeted from 864 to 599 voters, and votes for Kramer dropped by 300 votes from his previous race in 1986.
Meanwhile, Potter swept the majority of county polling places where there was an increase in voter turnout.
The much-ballyhooed "Potter Revolution," however, was a poorly attended affair. Fewer voters turned out for Potter vs. Kramer (81,000) than for the 1986 executive contest (87,000). Or as one Democratic precinct official told me on Election Day, "These are the regulars. ... I know these voters by name."
Neal Potter's good reputation among party regulars, his stubborn insistence on presenting his case and his ability to exploit the rising discontent within the family of traditional Democrats, as well as his opponent's mistakes, led to last Tuesday's "revolution."
Just as Sid Kramer made the 1986 election a referendum on his opponent David Scull, so Neal Potter successfully made Sid Kramer the issue in 1990.
Now that the election's over, county voters are asking themselves: "Can Neal Potter successfully manage the office of county executive?" It's a question Sid Kramer failed to take advantage of during the campaign. -- Blair Lee is vice president of a Silver Spring development firm and a frequent contributor to this page.