From the gritty streets of Baltimore, Montgomery County looks like the land of plenty -- an upscale populace, one of the finest school systems in the nation, a gleaming high-tech corridor and well-tanned executives in plaid pants whacking golf balls over lush green turf.
Up close, the picture takes on greater definition and depth of field, revealing the bumps and bruises associated with a burgeoning county on the rim of a major urban center, in this case Washington, D.C., a city with more than its share of crime and other societal ills.
Montgomery, now the most populous jurisdiction in Maryland, is having growing pains. In years past, it has gone along with an outflow of tax dollars to aid the state's poorer subdivisions -- notably Baltimore.
Now it is looking for help itself. County voters expect the next governor to provide some.
Because of its size and the heightened awareness of voters as to the role state government plays in their lives, most political observers view Montgomery as a major battleground in the gubernatorial primaries and perhaps the biggest prize in the general election battle to follow.
"The general election for governor is going to be settled here," said Blair Lee IV, developer, political commentator and self-proclaimed "suburban guerrilla," who has maintained for years that Montgomery is routinely fleeced by the state to prop up Baltimore City.
Two of the candidates -- Democrat Mary H. Boergers, a state senator, and Republican William S. Shepard, a retired Foreign Service officer, reside in the county. The other hopefuls are attempting in various ways to court voters there.
U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, the GOP front-runner, punctuated the importance she attaches to Montgomery by tapping Howard A. Denis, a veteran Bethesda state senator, as her running mate despite philosophical differences on such issues as abortion and gun control.
Last week state Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski of Baltimore devoted five days to a 30-mile walking tour of the county in hopes of persuading Montgomery voters to take a look at his campaign for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
In recognition of Montgomery's importance, Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening, who polls show is leading the Democratic field, has been organizing in the county for more than a year, according to his campaign manager, Emily Smith, and now has workers in every precinct.
As of the 1990 Census, Montgomery displaced Baltimore as the most populous of the state's 24 major subdivisions while remaining the richest. Nationally it ranks seventh among large suburban counties in per capita income and ninth in average family income.
But the population explosion the county experienced in the past decade and a half has brought with it a more diverse mix of residents, accompanied by concerns relating to school crowding, traffic congestion, taxes and crime.
"Montgomery County faces all the range of problems any metropolitan area faces," said County Councilmember Bruce T. Adams.
"I'm not saying they're of the magnitude of Baltimore or Washington, D.C., but they're all out there. Violence, AIDS, crowded schools --you name it, we've got it."
The result has been new pressure on the county government for services -- social programs, education, transportation, police and fire protection. Montgomery's delegation to the General Assembly, in turn, has been challenged as never before to bring state dollars back home.
"Montgomery County will need to have active state financial participation from now on," said Robert W. Marriott, the county's planning director. "The days of Montgomery County financing everything for itself are gone forever."
A slap in the face
Montgomery's complaints against the state are symbolized by action two years ago, when Gov. William Donald Schaefer, struggling to balance a recession-battered budget, terminated a program dating back to 1958 under which the state paid the employer's share of Social Security taxes for teachers, librarians and community college workers.
That cost Montgomery about $28 million and was widely viewed as a slap in the face to a county that had historically taken a progressive view of its responsibilities to more needy subdivisions.
Mr. Glendening has promised to restore the Social Security funding -- gaining the endorsement of County Executive Neal Potter and other local officials in the process.
Mr. Miedusiewski, for his part, has said that he will double the $21.6 million the county received this year in state funds for new school construction for a student population growing by 3,000 a year and projected to continue at that rate through the end of the century.
But county officials are likely to look to a new governor for help in other areas as well.
Between 1980 and 1990, the county's population expanded by 177,974 people, from 579,053 to 757,027, a whopping 31 percent increase, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. During that same period, the nonwhite population mushroomed from 14 percent to 23 percent of the total.
In addition to 92,267 blacks, the county is now home to 61,981 Asians or Pacific Islanders, and 55,684 residents of Hispanic extraction, many from Central America, according to the 1990 Census.
The Hispanic population more than doubled during the 1980s, giving the county nearly half the state total.
Montgomery is also home to the largest pool of immigrants in the state, 141,166 people -- six times more than in Baltimore City.
As a consequence, the county has the largest number of students in the state enrolled in English as a Second Language programs -- the cost of which has been borne primarily by the county. In the past few years, Montgomery has pressed the state for more money for those programs, with some success.
In this election year, the county has the votes to get the candidates' attention when it asks for more local aid.
Baltimore attorney John T. Willis, Mr. Glendening's senior political adviser, has crunched some numbers and come up with a fascinating theory that illuminates the evolving power shift toward suburban counties in general and Montgomery in particular.
Votes bring attention
Mr. Willis says that if the 1978 Democratic gubernatorial primary had been held in 1990, population changes would have given the nomination to Lt. Gov. Blair Lee III of Montgomery and not Harry R. Hughes, whose victory was built on votes from Baltimore City.
The population surge of the 1980s also swept the county into first place in terms of registered voters, with nearly 400,000 as of June, according to the state election board.
That gives Montgomery 17.3 percent of state voters, comfortably ahead of its only real competitors: Baltimore County, 15 percent; Baltimore City, 14.2 percent; and neighboring Prince George's County, 13.3 percent.
Such statewide totals may distort somewhat Montgomery's impact in a Democratic primary. Because it has 124,000 Republicans, far more than any other county, and nearly 60,000 independent voters, Montgomery at 15.2 percent of registered Democrats drops below Baltimore (20.1 percent) and Baltimore County (17.2 percent) and barely exceeds Prince George's (15.1 percent). Democrats outnumber Republicans in Maryland by a 2-to-1 ratio in registered voters.
Baltimore and Baltimore County can still outvote Montgomery and Prince George's in a Democratic primary. When Anne Arundel, Howard, Harford and Carroll counties are factored in, the Baltimore region, as traditionally defined, can continue to overpower suburban Washington.
But that analysis assumes that Maryland voters still cast their ballots in regional blocs. In fact, the 1992 Democratic presidential primary may well have signaled the inception of new statewide voting patterns dominated by increasingly conservative, middle-class suburbanites.
That election gave rise to the term "Tsongas Belt," after the primary winner, ex-Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas, who offset Bill Clinton's heavy Baltimore City vote with strong support in the counties of Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford, Howard and, most of all, Montgomery.
In a Republican primary, Montgomery becomes even more crucial, with 18.6 percent of the party's registered voters. When voter turnout is considered, the county's GOP primary vote can go as high as 22 percent of the total, according to candidate Shepard.
Residents like it
Its problems notwithstanding, Montgomery residents seem to like it there.
A poll conducted for the county and released last week said that 87 percent of respondents rated Montgomery as either a good or an excellent place to live.
That cheery outlook was leavened by the curious results of another, more informal poll. The Washington Post in April asked 27 local opinion leaders to list the 10 most influential men and women in Montgomery.
The clear winner was not a county government official, state lawmaker or business leader, but the younger Mr. Lee, who wields his influence through a column he writes once a week for the Montgomery Journal and a weekly television talk show on an underpowered cable station.
Mr. Lee's reputation has been built on his hostility to Governor Schaefer, whom he calls the governor of Baltimore, to the General Assembly and to The Baltimore Sun, alleged partners in supposedly causing a hemorrhage in county revenues.
How does Mr. Lee view life in Montgomery these days?
"We are basically knee-jerk liberal, nice folks who all of sudden feel picked upon and feel that our quality of life is under attack," he said. "In good times, it's easy to be a suburban liberal.
"But we're not having good times in Montgomery County."
REGISTER TO VOTE
If you need to register to vote for Maryland's primary election in September and the general election in November, you can learn important dates and where to register by calling Sundial, The Baltimore Sun's telephone information service.
For most users, the number to dial is (410) 783-1800. But in Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338.
Then, using a touch-tone phone, punch in the appropriate four-digit code after you hear the greeting to get information about where you live:
* Anne Arundel -- 6181
* Baltimore -- 6182
* Baltimore County -- 6183
* Carroll County -- 6184
* Harford County -- 6185
' * Howard County -- 6186