Edward Primoff has drawn harsh criticism from his political opponents for years, but the Carroll County property rights advocate is so incensed by comments he called libelous and anti-Semitic in a letter published in the Jan. 31 Mount Airy Gazette that he's considering legal recourse, he said.
The letter, written by South Carroll community leader and longtime Primoff antagonist Nimrod Davis, says, "one carpetbagger filled his bag with gelt and came north to Carroll County from Howard County. He knew that the Carroll County farmers were just right to be picked clean by the big developers and builders."
The questions of anti-Semitism are attached to Davis' use of the words gelt, a colloquial Yiddish term for money, and carpetbagger, a term for Northerners who are said to have taken advantage of poverty in the post-Civil War South to accrue political influence and financial gain. Anti-Semites throughout history have portrayed Jews as money-seeking interlopers.
Though the letter does not name Primoff, it offers multiple clues to whom Davis is referring, including that the subject moved from Howard to Carroll 12 years ago, is a member of the county's zoning ordinance review committee and has a wife on the Carroll Ethics Commission. All of that is true of Primoff.
Primoff said he first objected to the letter's implication that he has fleeced county farmers. The charge hurt him, he said, because he has spent so much time protecting farmers' development rights and land values. He picked up the anti-Semitic connotations on closer reading, he said. Primoff's parents were Jewish, but he is not a practicing Jew, he said.
"I've turned the cheek too long and ignored this nasty, slanderous, untrue stuff," Primoff said. "There has to be a time to draw the line."
Davis said he believes Primoff is a carpetbagger because he's used the support of Carroll farmers to become a leading conservative voice in county political circles. Davis said he used the term gelt as a synonym for money, adding that several of his co-workers over the years have used the term.
"It wasn't a racist remark," Davis said. "And as far as the letter goes, there's nothing in there that isn't really happening. As far as what's happening in the county, I don't see eye to eye with him, and he knows that."
Primoff has been on the pro-development side of many issues since he formed the Carroll County Landowners Association in 1994. The organization, designed to protect farmers' property rights, has a membership of about 2,000 families, Primoff said.
Most recently, Primoff championed a zoning law that critics around the county and state planners say will prompt unbridled development of Carroll farmland. Primoff was a member of the appointed committee that helped write the law. He used it to submit a subdivision plan for his 200-acre property in Woodbine, which showed a conflict of interest, Davis and other slow-growth advocates contended.
Though the county commissioners appear close to declawing the law with revisions, Primoff remains a villain to critics of the measure.
Davis' letter criticizes Primoff for his role in the zoning battle and for what Davis calls his immense behind-the-scenes power over county leaders.
But political disagreements aside, many said Davis' letter, perhaps unwittingly, taps an ancient vein of anti-Semitic rhetoric. Linking a Yiddish word with the carpetbagging theme seems particularly disturbing, said a Taylorsville rabbi.
"There are a number of standard modes of malicious anti-Semitic tripe. Among them is the contention that Jews are societal interlopers rather than full-fledged and integrated members of the community," said Amy R. Scheinerman, rabbi for Beth Shalom Congregation.
"... I would hope that this is not at all what Mr. Davis had in mind when he likened Mr. Primoff, who has lived in Carroll County for well over a decade, to a 'carpetbagger.'"
Scheinerman said she doesn't know Davis or Primoff.
Others in Carroll said they also felt uncomfortable with Davis' use of the terms.
"It's somebody just looking for nasty things to say about another person, and coming up with as many as possible," said Edward M. Beard, chairman of Carroll County's planning commission. "It is anti-Semitic, and it's deplorable."
People who know Davis well defended his character.
"If Primoff's spin is that Nimrod is an anti-Semite, well, he has a lot of spins," said Ross Dangel, spokesman for Freedom Area Citizens Council, of which Davis is vice president. "I've known Nimrod for many years, and I've never found him to be anti-Semitic or a racist in any way. That's so far-fetched it's almost farcical."
Dangel said he thought Davis was using the history of carpetbaggers to poke fun at Primoff's relationship with Carroll County farmers.
Mount Airy Gazette Publisher Carol Blackburn declined to comment on the letter or Primoff's reaction. The weekly newspaper is owned by the Washington Post Co., which would handle any legal action against the Gazette, Blackburn said. The Gazette is one of more than 40 community newspapers published across Maryland by the Gazette Co., a separately managed Post Co. subsidiary.
Primoff said several passages in the letter are blatantly untrue, including one that quotes him as saying, "In a couple of years, I'll be running this county from my living room."
Davis said Primoff made the comment during a conversation with him and two associates at Primoff's home.
Primoff also said the letter lies about how often he visits the county office building in Westminster and overstates his influence on government decisions.
This is the letter that appeared in the Jan. 31, 2002, edition of the Mount Airy Gazette:
We can all remember reading about the carpetbaggers that filled their bags with cash and went south after the Civil War and took advantage of the reconstruction period to rob the poor landowners. We now know that things have changed because about 12 years ago one carpetbagger filled his bag with gelt and came north to Carroll County from Howard County. He knew that the Carroll County farmers were just right to be picked clean by the big developers and builders.
This carpetbagger settled in for the long haul, bought himself a 200-acre farm and it wasn't long before he said, "In a couple of years I'll be running this county from my living room."
He was very upset when he found out that the Constitution had been amended and new laws had been passed and the common folk could register to vote. He was so upset about this that he contacted all of the landowners in the county and formed the "landowners association." He was quoted as saying that the more acreage a person owns, the more votes he should have. Maybe he would like to change things back to the way they were in the early eighteen hundreds (1804).
One thing is for sure, he was only one-half right about running the county from his living room because my source tells me that he spends about half his time at 225 North Center Street.
When the new Master Plan was written he volunteered to be on the land use committee. His wife was on the Agriculture Committee and many of his landowner friends were also on the committees. He even had his wife appointed to the Ethics Commission.
Are we starting to sound like there might be some conflicts of interest here?
The plot thickens because he then got himself appointed to the Zoning Ordinance Review Committee (ZORC). This seems to have been the culmination of the past few years. This committee came up with a plan to add hundreds of new building lots to Ag land. Of course, the beneficiaries would be large landowners who are not interested in farming, just in making money.
If this law is not repealed, our school population could increase to the point that the county cannot continue to build schools without raising taxes. Just think what it would do to our roads, water and all of the other services needed to accommodate all the new homes.
Anyway you look at it, this county is overdue for a big change, so maybe come November 2002, this carpetbagger will pack his bag and head back for whence he came.