The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sidney Kramer, third Montgomery county executive, dies at 96

Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Eileen Rehrmann announces former Montgomery county executive Sidney Kramer as her running mate in June 1998 in Laurel, Md. (Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post)
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Sidney Kramer, a businessman and political figure who won election in 1986 to become the third person to serve as Montgomery county executive, died May 16 at his home in Rockville, Md.

His death was confirmed by his son, Maryland state Sen. Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Montgomery), who said of the elder Kramer, six weeks from turning 97: “Right up till the end, he was as sharp as can be.”

Mr. Kramer, known as “Sid” to friends, served in a variety of local and state offices from the 1970s to the 1990s, helping to oversee Montgomery’s explosive population and economic growth as it transformed from a semirural county into a bustling suburb. Throughout his political career, Mr. Kramer was widely regarded as a fierce advocate for Montgomery in the state capital, Annapolis.

“He was an emblem of an era of Montgomery County politics,” said County Council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large).

Later in life, Mr. Kramer was often spotted at galas and dinners in the county, continuing to engage with local and state politics and “hold court” even as he aged into his 90s, said Chuck Short, who led the Department of Family Resources — now Health and Human Services — under Mr. Kramer.

“A great Marylander, Sid Kramer was as civic-minded as they come, making lasting contributions in both business and elected office,” Gov. Larry Hogan (R) wrote on Twitter.

“He was a really decent guy,” said Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D). Even though the two didn’t always agree on issues concerning land use and development, Elrich said, he always saw Kramer as “somebody I could talk to.”

Mr. Kramer was born in Washington on July 8, 1925, to Jewish immigrants who had fled Eastern Europe for America.

When he was a boy, his parents made ends meet by renting out a bedroom in the family apartment; he slept on a porch. Mr. Kramer grew up during the Great Depression and believed strongly in the value of work for the rest of his life, his children said.

While working full time, he attended George Washington University and involved himself early in business ventures. In one, he sold liquor. Later, he ran flourishing carwash enterprises and became affluent through real estate.

In the 1970s, Mr. Kramer began his successful career in electoral politics, winning offices in which he helped to oversee Montgomery’s growth and the challenges associated with it. As a council member in the 1970s, he pushed for the county to give out its first grants to local nonprofit groups and advocated against prohibition-era “blue laws” that barred liquor sales on Sundays. He went on to become a state senator before serving as Montgomery county executive from 1986 to 1990, during which time he led a relatively low-key, businesslike administration as it confronted such issues as how to manage rising school enrollments and increasing traffic congestion.

“He was gracious and kind, and also very demanding as a boss,” said Short, who had known Mr. Kramer for nearly 50 years.

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Before Mr. Kramer’s administration, Short said, the county had largely left it to the state to support those with developmental disabilities. Mr. Kramer, he said, became the first county executive to allocate county dollars to group homes and other initiatives for the disabled, because he “cared deeply about the vulnerable.”

That care extended beyond his executive duties. When Mr. Kramer was his boss, Short said, he never failed to ask Short about his son, who is blind. “The kind and caring way he greeted me and asked about my son — it was the most sincere concern. I will always remember that,” Short said.

Mr. Kramer impressed the importance of public service on his three children, two of whom went on to serve as state senators. Benjamin Kramer represents District 19, in Montgomery County, and Mr. Kramer’s daughter Rona Kramer is now the state secretary of aging.

“Dad was very proud of his commitment to Montgomery County,” Benjamin Kramer said. “It was important to him — and now to us — that Montgomery County got its proportionate share of state tax dollars.”

U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who overlapped with Mr. Kramer in Annapolis in the 1970s and ’80s, described him as a “strong leader, a very principled individual,” bringing a sharp business acumen and a conservative bent to managing the county’s budget at a time of huge growth.

“He was the right person at the right time in Montgomery County to recognize that the county was not only growing as far as its size, from the point of view of budgets, but also for influence it had in the state,” along with the ability to absorb a growing and diversifying population, Cardin said. “Every leader in Montgomery County in recent years has been progressive, but he showed a conservative ability as it relates to financing needed to get the county on the proper long-term footing.”

At one point in his administration, Mr. Kramer’s popularity prompted him to consider seeking Maryland’s governorship. But Mr. Kramer was defeated in the 1990 Democratic primary for renomination as county executive, by veteran county council member Neal Potter.

At first, Mr. Kramer seemed ready to accept the rebuff, but then he launched an unsuccessful general-election campaign as a write-in candidate. His unexpected loss in the primary was viewed by students of county affairs as less a personal rejection than part of a periodic tidal wave of sentiment away from growth and those who seemed associated with it.

After his defeat, he played the part of elder statesman, appearing at public events and continuing to express an interest in the welfare of his county. For his part, Mr. Kramer believed that his administration had successfully coped with growth: managing it, and even restraining it.

Long after his time in public office, Cardin said, Mr. Kramer remained a mentor to rising politicians who sought out his advice — “including me,” Cardin said, noting Mr. Kramer’s generosity with his time and resources during Cardin’s first run for statewide office.

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Mr. Kramer was a former president of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, president of the Rotary Club of Silver Spring, vice chairman of the Executive Committee of the Montgomery United Way, director of the ARC of Maryland and a member of the Board of Trustees of Holy Cross Hospital.

He is survived by his three children, Benjamin, Rona and Miriam Dubin; eight grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

U.S. Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), who served with Benjamin and Rona Kramer in the state Senate, recalled how much it meant to him when Mr. Kramer called him after he won his first election to the body, “saying it was my turn to go and fight for Montgomery County.”

He described Mr. Kramer as “a man of great decency and warmth,” part of a generation of leaders “who saw Montgomery County coming into its own in statewide politics.”

“I think of him as such a Montgomery County thoroughbred politician,” Raskin said. “He was such a zealous, unrelenting champion for our community.”