Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Negative Campaigning in Montgomery County, Part One

There is a great hue and cry going up about negative campaigning in District 4. Ben Kramer sent out the flyer below featuring a protest by Alison Klumpp against Nancy Navarro’s mailers.

The irony here is delicious. After all, Mrs. Klumpp’s mother, Marilyn Praisner, won her first County Council election in part by criticizing her opponent.

Flash back to 1990. Michael Gudis was a man with problems. The three-term County Council Member had been pilloried by the media for employing his girlfriend in his council office. An impending reorganization of the council transforming it from a seven-member at-large body to a council with four at-large members and five district members herded him into a district race. He was a developer-supported candidate in a slow-growth year. (This was the year that anti-development Council Member Neal Potter defeated incumbent County Executive and businessman Sid Kramer.) But worst of all, Gudis had a formidable challenger: two-term Board of Education Member and former CIA analyst Marilyn Praisner.

Mrs. Praisner had very little money; Gudis outraised her by at least six to one. But she announced her challenge in the summer of 1989 and spent a year working the district. Some of the qualities that made her a legend were already manifest in her first council race: toughness, hard work and attention to detail. And she laid a clever trap for the incumbent.

One of our spies recounts what happened:

At a candidate forum, Mrs. Praisner made a statement to the effect that campaign accounts should not be used for personal benefit.

Mr. Gudis responded that he agreed.

Mrs. Praisner then turned to Mr. Gudis and asked why, if he agreed, he had used $700 of campaign funds to pay dues to the Jewish Community Center.

Mr. Gudis turned redder than a ripe tomato and responded – jabbered, actually – that he is on the Board of the JCC and that it was therefore an appropriate use of campaign funds.

The Montgomery Journal ran an editorial – I think it was called “Mr. Gudis, Pay Back the Money” – saying that it wasn’t an appropriate use of campaign funds and he should pay it back. His response – a letter to the Editor defending the expenditure.

When letters started to appear in the Washington Jewish Week, I knew the election was over. Jewish voters were writing that “they work hard and struggle to pay their dues to the JCC,” and who does this guy think he is.
Gudis later accused Mrs. Praisner of using “CIA tactics” in the pages of the Post but it made no difference. Mrs. Praisner won and so began the ascendancy of one of the county’s greatest public servants. Was her use of the JCC issue negative campaigning or merely seizure of opportunity? In any event, it was criticism of an opponent based on his record. And it worked.

Mrs. Klumpp’s allegation that Marilyn Praisner supported Ben Kramer’s Delegate candidacy strikes us as odd. We cannot locate any verification for it. Furthermore, Sid Kramer, Ben Kramer’s father, endorsed Nancy Navarro in 2008 when she ran against Don Praisner. If the Kramers and Praisners were so close, why did the Kramer family patriarch oppose Don Praisner?

This is just one story in Montgomery County’s long history of contentious campaigns. We’ll recount that history in Part Two.