Maverick Potter was 'right man at right time' in Montgomery race

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ROCKVILLE -- In July, when veteran Montgomery County Councilman Neal Potter decided to challenge incumbent County Executive Sidney Kramer in the election, his fellow councilman Bruce Adams gave him some advice.

Don't do it, he said.

In Mr. Adams' view, nobody, not even Montgomery County's elder statesman, could canvass a county of 750,000 and defeat a lavishly funded incumbent in the nine weeks left until the primary.

This week, after Mr. Potter pulled an upset, an astonished Mr. Adams modified that view.

"Only Neal could have done it," said Mr. Adams, a longtime Potter ally who considers the 75-year-old council veteran a mentor. "Only a special person like Neal Potter, with a special issue like this development issue, could have done it."

Call him the Miracle on Rockville Pike. Mr. Potter's campaign was underfunded, devoid of media blitzes and newspaper endorsements and handicapped by an 11th-hour start.

But on Tuesday, he won 52.1 percent of the vote to Mr. Kramer's 47.8percent. It was a heady victory, seen as a rejection of the rapid growth that has made Montgomery the state's most populous jurisdiction.

"Neal Potter was the right man at the right time," said Mr. Kramer, who plans to enter private enterprise when he leaves office. "Obviously, the voters felt they wanted a change from Sidney Kramer, and that's their prerogative."

Although growth was a pivotal issue in this election, Mr. Potter's triumph -- expected to translate into a victory over Republican businessman Albert Ceccone in the Nov. 6 general election -- was born of aconfluence of circumstances.

Just when many residents of Montgomery County were hitting the roof over traffic jams and overcrowded schools, upset about property taxes and worried about their county's future, along came Mr. Potter to throw Mr. Kramer and his perceived shortcomings into high relief.

It was the millionaire vs. the maverick. Mr. Kramer, 65, built his wealth from a chain of carwashes and was accused of putting his commercial real estate interests above the public interest. He was perceivedas the pro-growth incumbent allied with the developers who helped fund his campaign.

Mr. Potter is a Montgomery County farm boy turned economist who is popularly referred to as the "Conscience of the Council" and a fixture in independent-minded Montgomery County. He has maintained the aura of an untainted outsider through 20 years on the council.

Though Mr. Kramer has favored some growth controls and Mr. Potter has favored some growth, Mr. Kramer was unable to get voters to make such distinctions.

"I failed to get the message across that I had to the best of my ability attempted to slow growth," he said.

What's more, in 20 years on the council, Mr. Potter had developed a solid countywide base. In the 1986 election, he drew 54,380, or 78.9 percent, of the vote in his council race, compared with Mr. Kramer's 52,421, or 59.7 percent, in the county executive's race.

When Mr. Potter entered the race, he became the natural alternative for segments of the county alienated by controversial Kramer decisions: backing a mega-mall to revive downtown Silver Spring, cutting the school budget and planning an incinerator in a rural northern stretch of the county. In addition, many Democrats were offended at Mr. Kramer's attempt to shape an incumbent slate bolstered by campaign contributions from developers.

"It wasn't just a referendum on growth," said political pundit Blair Lee IV, a Montgomery native. "It was a referendum on Sid Kramer.

"Neal ran against bossism and money and politics," Mr. Lee said. "Now, in most counties and in Baltimore City that wouldn't raise an eyebrow. In Montgomery, nothing sells better than a reform movement. ... In downtown D.C., they forgive the mayor for being a drug addict. In Montgomery, we execute the county executive for being a developer."

Mr. Potter said voters were stirred up about the same trend that drove him to give up his original intention of retiring from politics -- the growing influence of developers.

Tuesday's vote "says voters want stability and balance in growth. They want stable and lower property taxes," Mr. Potter said. They want a free and independent political system.

Though Mr. Potter's election may be a triumph of grass-roots politics, it is by no means a mandate. His ascent is viewed with trepidation by the county's business community.

Some fear he'll turn the county topsy-turvy. Others worry that the consummate outsider, with his penchant for detail, will gum up the works in Montgomery's well-oiled government bureaucracy.

Don't worry, Mr. Potter said. If hewins in November, changes lie ahead -- but they'll be gradual.

"I'm a stability advocate," he said. "I will try to tilt things in a different direction, but I will not be a disruptive force."

County government is "on the whole, efficient and well-managed," he said. And he is more interested in equipping the county to better handle the next development boom than in halting growth already slowed by the faltering economy.

He expressed hope that the economic slowdown will be a time for Montgomery to catch up on roads and schools, enact a development tax and tighten requirements that county facilities keep pace with new development.

And he doesn't foresee any trouble getting along with the Baltimore and Annapolis politicians that Mr. Kramer successfully cultivated. "I think Baltimore has to have a lot of support from the rest of the state," Mr. Potter said.

But he hopes to revisit some controversial issues, such as the proposed Bethesda-Silver Spring light rail. Mr. Potter wants to persuade Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who has pledged $70 million to the project, to channel the money to urgent road improvements, "which would give us faster relief at a lower price." Light rail, he said, can wait.

And if the Silver Triangle project, the controversial office and shopping behemoth planned for Silver Spring, continues to founder, he would like to see it scaled back.

As for business, Mr. Potter said the time to attract more business is in the coming years as the economy slows. "I'm interested in promoting effective private enterprise," he said. "My differences with the business community is they want special favors many times. ... I think [projects] should pay their own way so far as possible."

With five of the six council candidates he endorsed likely to repeat their primary wins in the general election, Mr. Potter could be in an ideal position to bring about some of the changes he has advocated.

If that happens, the ultimate test lies ahead, said Councilman Adams.

"Those of us who have been in the minority are now in the majority and have to govern," Mr. Adams said. "And that's a much more substantial challenge than saying we didn't like what you did.'"

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