Sidney Kramer was 7 years old -- the son of Russian immigrants, a boy just learning to speak English -- when he started work in his father's wholesale meat market at Fifth Street and Florida Avenue in Northeast Washington. He was put in charge of the mayonnaise and egg stand, where he learned salesmanship, organization and how to make change. He worked all day on Saturdays, and the 25 cents he earned he saved in a little desk with a lock.
Work hard, pay attention to detail, keep track of your money.
Kramer learned the tenets of business. He followed them when he opened his first carwash, parlaying it into a commercial real estate enterprise so vast he won't estimate its value. He applied them when he launched his second career, entering Montgomery County politics and winning races for County Council and the state Senate. And, as Montgomery's executive for the past four years, Kramer has adopted the same businesslike approach to running government.
At 65 and seeking to win next Tuesday's Democratic primary for county executive against veteran council member Neal Potter, Kramer is, by his own definition, "a nuts and bolts administrator running a very big enterprise, a $1.5 billion business."
But while his experience in business has propelled him forward, it also has become the subject of nagging criticisms about his stewardship of Montgomery County.
"Understand this about Sid Kramer. He is not really complex. He is a man of business: pragmatic, practical and realistic. He runs the government the way he would run any of his enterprises," said a former county employee.
Some compare Kramer's style to that of a proprietor of a store: He makes sure that when the store opens, the shelves are stocked and the floor is swept. When the store closes, he makes sure the doors are locked and the lights are out.
That image of Kramer has led his supporters to depict him as a skilled administrator, able to run a complex government in a time of economic uncertainty, and as a master practitioner of consensus politics.
"I am very proud of the fact that I am a businessman," Kramer said in a recent interview. "Business is essential to paying the way of Montgomery County."
But Kramer's critics use the store-owner analogy to portray him as plodding and unimaginative, with no vision of how to lead the county in a decade in which new solutions are needed to combat excessive growth and rising taxes.
Potter said that Montgomery deserves better than a maintenance form of government. He said that the county has department heads to run the day-to-day operations, and that it needs from an executive something Kramer lacks: ideas and imagination.
And there are other criticisms. In a county that prides itself on the quality of its schools, some say the message of the Kramer administration is to lower expectations rather than meet the expense of educational excellence.
"I look around and see all these problems -- overdevelopment, more congestion, higher housing costs -- and all I see is a businessman getting big campaign contributions from the development community and whose policies just mean more -- more density, more jobs and more cars," said Margaret Erickson, a civic activist.
Kramer challenges that view of Montgomery, noting that virtually all public opinion polling, including a recent Washington Post survey, shows residents consider the county a very good place to live.
"Look at the troubles of any jurisdiction in the Washington metropolitan area," Kramer said. "We don't have the traffic problems, we don't have the drug problems, we don't have the money problems . . . . Montgomery is the best-managed jurisdiction in the Washington metropolitan area."
Kramer is quick to acknowledge that he cannot claim credit for many of the qualities that make life so good. Montgomery is a wealthy county with a tradition of good government, sound fiscal planning and involved residents -- all of which have helped it keep many social ills at bay.
"He's not going to do anything to upset the equilibrium of the county," said aide Edmond F. Rovner.
Kramer's introduction to politics flowed from his concerns as a businessman. In the 1960s, the state was considering legislation to restrict the operation of businesses on Sunday -- a move that would have been fatal to Kramer's carwashes in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
Kramer, who had moved to the county in 1960, worked with state Sen. Margaret C. Schweinhaut (D-Montgomery) to oppose the suggested "blue laws," discovered he liked the political process and thought it would be good way to repay the county for his success.
He had ended up in business after a painful decision to go against his parents' wishes that one of their five boys become a doctor.
"I've always been intrigued by the marketplace . . . the fact you could go as far as you wanted and as high as you wanted if you just worked hard," he said.
After leaving George Washington University after almost four years, he worked at a package store at Connecticut Avenue and Van Ness Street in Northwest; his wife, Betty Mae, worked as a teacher, and they saved their money. Kramer was 30 when they bought a piece of land on Chillum Road in Hyattsville, where, after persuading skeptical bankers to lend him money, he built a carwash. "I wanted to do something new and different," Kramer said.
The business was a family enterprise. Kramer did the borings himself for the construction. Betty Mae Kramer worked next to him. "And we succeeded," said Kramer, who, shortly after becoming county executive, moved from Silver Spring to a larger home in Potomac.
Kramer's holdings are an issue to critics such as Robert Denny, leader of a taxpayers group, who contends that "it's an unavoidable conflict of interest" when the executive is involved in decisions that could affect his properties.
But county officials say that planning for the projects cited by Denny predates Kramer's term in office and that the council approved them. The county ethics commission has said there is no conflict as long as Kramer discloses his holdings.
Criticism of his motives rankles Kramer and enrages his friends and supporters.
"You won't find any skeletons with that guy. He is a straight arrow," said family friend Harvey Perlstein, a Bethesda businessman.
Kramer lost his first political race, a 1966 campaign for state Senate. He won a 1970 bid for the County Council, becoming part of a council renowned for enacting landmark legislation in rent control, which he supported, and landlord-tenant relations.
Kramer left the council to run for Congress in 1974, a bid that was unsuccessful. Four years later, he won a state Senate seat, serving two terms and winning a reputation as a low-key but skillful legislator able to build alliances with other jurisdictions.
When County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist made his surprise decision to drop out of politics and become a minister, he persuaded Kramer to enter the 1986 race. In many respects, this year's Kramer-Potter primary is an echo of that earlier battle between Kramer and then-council member David Scull.
Like Scull, Potter is trying to portray Kramer as the candidate -- well-oiled with big money from developers -- intent on promoting growth. Scull's attack never took, and Kramer, promising to manage growth, swept into office after winning the primary with 60 percent of the vote.
Kramer said he is proud of his record on growth, including some stands that have angered developers. His record, he said, includes slashing funding for roads in order to build schools and opposing a loophole in growth limits benefiting the owner of a convenience store chain. He also has supported a policy closing off much of the county to future development.
However, other actions have drawn strong protest from citizens groups opposed to growth. Although it is not yet clear how much of the $238,700 he has raised has come from real estate interests, the size of his war chest has opened him up to criticism that he is in the pocket of developers who have high financial stakes in the suburban development boom.
Citizens groups also note that Kramer vetoed a parking tax bitterly fought by the county's major employers and that he is against a countywide development tax. Moreover, on the issue that has come to be Montgomery's reference point for growth, Kramer was a staunch supporter of sweeping redevelopment plans for Silver Spring.
One area where Kramer has received applause is county social services.
Charles L. Short, director of the county's department of family resources, remembers one meeting Kramer held with a group that had overspent a state grant and was looking for county help.
"Sid heard them out. He asked them questions. He wanted to know how they possibly could have spent so much," said Short. Typically, Kramer approached the request with a businessman's sensibilities. He was sensitive to the needs of the disabled -- his wife's sister is retarded -- but he had to make sure the decision made sense, Short said. The group got its money.
"It's hard for him to shake this image he came to office with . . . but his human service record is truly outstanding," said Short, whose view is echoed by people who work with the disabled, the homeless and seniors.
Kramer is a hard person to get to know, according to friends and advisers. One reason is his stiff public demeanor. He has a stylized way of speaking in public, often referring to himself in the third person -- perhaps a legacy of his early years, when he spoke only Yiddish.
People who work for Kramer say that he doesn't chat or jest the way Gilchrist did. "He's all business," said Short. But he remembers the day his blind son had a corneal transplant and Kramer stopped by with a balloon and a Snoopy doll.
It's early Sunday morning and Kramer, surrounded by his grandchildren, is outside Katz Kosher Supermarket in Rockville.
Rebecca, 7, charms those exiting the store with the request "Please vote for my Grandpa," while 2-year-old Isadore toddles about.
Kramer frets that the children should eat breakfast. He jokes about the opening of school. He worries when a granddaughter perches on a railing. He beams when complimented on the children's manners.
"It took a lot of astute planning to get where I am today," Kramer said. "I think that same kind of planning has helped the county over the last four years."
Tomorrow: A profile of Kramer's Democratic opponent, Neal Potter.
Birthplace: Washington D.C.
Education: D.C. public schools attended George Washington University.
Work Experience: Started work in father's wholesale meat business; later worked package store; opened car wash in Hyattsville in 1955, start of a successful chain that lead to investments in real estate and formation of current business, Kramer Enterprises.
Political Experience: Mongtomery County Council, 1970 to 1974; State Senate, 1978 to 1986; County executive, 1986 to present.
Civic and Professional Associations: Maryland Association for Retarded Children; past president of Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce; past member of the board of trustees of Holy Cross Hospital and past member of executive committee of Montogmery County United Way.
Religious Affliation: Jewish
Marital Status: Married, two daughters, one son and six grandchildren. Favorite reading: Wall Street Journal newspaper.
STAND ON KEY ISSUES
Trolley: Favors construction of light rail system between Silver Spring and Bethesda.
Silver Spring Redevelopment: Lists revilitization of Silver Spring as top priority.
Taxes: Has taken different positions on property tax rate. Opposes a countywide tax on development, a proposed parking tax and what he calls other hidden taxes. Favors impact fees and special development district taxes for developers.
Charter amendments: Opposes all proposals to change County Charter to limit property taxes or to restrict county spending.