Montgomery County voters took matters into their own hands yesterday: They repudiated the incumbent county executive, broke the Democrats' 20-year grip on the County Council and drew the line on taxes.
Neal Potter, 75, whose three decades in Montgomery civic and political life span the county's transformation from suburban enclave to Maryland's most populous place, won a decisive victory over Republican challenger Albert Ceccone while county voters spurned the write-in candidacy of incumbent Sidney Kramer.
In a race framed by voter discontent over the rate of growth, the rise of taxes and a distrust of government to deal with today's problems, Potter received 61 percent of the vote, according to final returns last night. Ceccone, 44, a businessman making his seventh -- and he said final -- run for elective office, received 19.4 percent of the vote.
Election returns showed that 19.4 percent of the votes were write-ins. Kramer, who lost a bitter primary to council member Potter, had the only organized write-in campaign, but his tally won't be known until the write-in votes are examined.
"It's a real people's victory," Potter told 400 supporters as he entered his victory party at 9:15 p.m. Potter heard the news of his victory while at home, listening to the radio. "Thanks a million," he told the crowd. "Your inspiration is the same as mine, and we will do the best we can for Montgomery County."
It was a sadder gathering at Kramer headquarters. "I'm disappointed. Anyone who lost a race would be disappointed," Kramer told his supporters. He chatted with his workers, who put together a scrappy campaign in the month between the primary and general election, cheering and consoling them.
Kramer said his first obligation was to his supporters, and he had not made the traditional congratulatory phone call to Potter.
Potter, who will become the fourth executive in county history when he assumes the $86,021-a-year post next month, will face a government changed by the tumult of the past year.
Two Republicans -- women with strong roots in the civic movement and its demands for a slowing of growth -- won election to a reshaped council, the first Republicans on the body in 20 years.
Betty Ann Krahnke, a former member of the county planning board, beat her Democratic opponent, former delegate Marilyn Goldwater, for the District 1 council seat that takes in Bethesda and Chevy Chase. In the sprawling upcounty area, longtime civic activist Nancy Dacek beat Democratic newcomer Vickie York.
"It means a whole new government for our county, which we desperately needed," Krahnke said last night.
Dacek and Krahnke will be among five new faces when the refashioned council takes office Dec. 3. Incumbent Democrats Bruce T. Adams, Isiah Leggett, William E. Hanna Jr. and Michael Subin won reelection easily, although Democratic newcomer Gail Ewing was the top vote-getter in the at-large races. Democrats Marilyn Praisner and Derick Berlage scored impressive victories in their districts. Because of a change approved by voters four years ago, the council grows from seven members to nine, with five members elected from smaller geographic districts.
"It says something about the nation's anti-incumbent mood that I finished first and got the most votes, and we did it with one-third of the money" of other candidates, Ewing said.
Other changes were on tap last night.
Leaders of the county's taxpayer revolt, which was rooted in the anger of a year ago when skyrocketing assessments brought the threat of hefty tax bills, persuaded voters to approve a tax limitation measure that links increases in tax revenue to the rate of inflation. Voters rejected other, more drastic tax limitation measures.
Anti-incumbent sentiment extended to the nonpartisan school board race, where the only incumbent running for reelection, James E. Cronin, was defeated by newcomer Alan Cheung. In other school board races, Carol P. Fanconi won in District 1 and Ana Sol Guitierrez was elected in District 3. Final returns showed Frances Brenneman winning with 49.8 percent of the vote, compared with 49.4 percent for Donald R. Buckner, but absentee ballots still must be counted.
In other balloting, Republicans picked up another legislative seat in upcounty District 15.
Yesterday's election was the culmination of a tumultuous year in county politics. Conventional wisdom -- as well as conventions of political behavior -- went out the window.
The year began with Kramer riding high on expectations he was a sure bet for a second term. Potter and the council's other incumbents signed onto a Kramer-led ticket, intended to scare off any real opposition with its show of unity.
Kramer, a former state senator who won a hard-fought Democratic primary for county executive in 1986, was so confident of his return to office that he had started testing the waters for a 1994 gubernatorial bid. Then Potter bolted from Kramer's ticket, beginning a chain reaction that led to Kramer's being upset in the Sept. 11 primary.
Potter left the Kramer ticket saying he had decided to retire because his wife was in poor health and because he couldn't condone the way Kramer had assembled the ticket. But instead of quietly serving the last months of his council term, Potter rebelled.
He angered some of his colleagues on the council by suggesting they didn't deserve reelection. Potter's revolt became full-blown just hours before the filing deadline for candidates when he entered the race for county executive, focusing his campaign on charges of "bossism" and overdevelopment.
Potter had no money and little time, but with a cadre of volunteers -- many motivated by a dislike of such Kramer decisions as where to place a trash incinerator or how to redevelop Silver Spring -- put together a campaign that tapped a great well of citizen discontent.
In the aftermath of the upset, Kramer agreed to work for Potter, but within weeks, he changed his mind.
The contrast between the bland campaign Kramer ran in the primary and his offbeat write-in bid was apparent at many of the county's 214 precincts yesterday as Kramer workers, wearing distinctive orange caps, handed out tiny pencils stamped "Write Sid Kramer -- punch ballot."
Harvey Hurwitz, a marketing specialist who was handing out Kramer material in the incumbent's old neighborhood of Kemp Mill, said, "I've never before done anything like this in my life and there are other things I would rather be doing . . . but that's how much I care."
But the write-in effort also created a backlash. Pat McCarthy, a teacher, said he didn't vote in the September primary but "I'm highly motivated this time." McCarthy said he isn't a big fan of Potter's but he believes "Kramer had his chance, so Potter gets my vote."