Tuesday, June 22, 2010

20-20 Hindsight: A Look Back at the 1990 Election That Transformed the MoCo Political Landscape

By Steve Simon.

Twenty years ago at this time – much like this year – a first-term Montgomery County Executive was cruising into reelection, with no real challenger in sight. Then, two hours before the candidate filing deadline, five-term County Councilmember Neal Potter shocked locals by postponing his previously announced retirement plans to enter the race and take on a seemingly unbeatable incumbent, in Sid Kramer.

Riding a “slow growth” wave of the time, Potter pulled off a stunning upset over Kramer in the September primary. He then went on to an easy victory in November – even beating Kramer again, as he launched an ill-fated, write-in campaign. And the rest, as they say, is history.

But what may be more interesting are the many ways that the county’s history and political landscape were altered, as a result of that fateful 1990 election.
One of the greatest aspects of Frank Capra’s holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, is the way the lead character, George Bailey, was given a magical chance to see how things may have turned out if he was never born. Implicit in that were the lives that he touched and how different the paths of those individuals would have been if George did not exist.

Now let’s see… if Neal Potter had not run for County Executive in 1990… hmmm….

Would Sid Kramer have gone on to parlay a second term as County Executive into, say, a run for Governor? Or maybe into a third term – thereby accomplishing the feat before Doug Duncan could even contemplate a run?

If so, would Sid’s children, Rona Kramer (now a state senator) and Ben Kramer (now a delegate), have ever launched their own political careers?

(And by the way… if not for that defeat, certainly Sid Kramer would never have launched the write-in campaign in the General Election, thereby ending his political career and any chance of a return run in later years.)

Would Jon Gerson, County Executive Potter’s economic development director, have eventually continued on a career path that would lead him to his current stop as the “Apple Ballot king-maker” for the teachers’ union (Montgomery County Education Association)?”

Would General Dynamics have ever really considered setting up headquarters in Montgomery County, if Potter had not made some now infamous, dismissive remarks about whether we needed or he wanted the defense contractor giant here anyway? Much like the Northrop Grumman move of 2010, many observers say the company was never really seriously considering Maryland over Virginia, but that the most lasting impact of the decision was in the negative way it seemed to characterize the local business climate.

Would Potter aide Gene Lynch have ever launched a public service career that would include the following collection of high-level stints: Special Assistant to the County Executive, Montgomery County Chief Administrative Officer, Secretary of General Services for the State of Maryland, and Montgomery County Planning Board member?

Would Bill Hussmann – top aide to the first-ever Montgomery County Executive, James Gleason – have ever resurfaced onto the county scene to become chief administrative officer under Potter, and eventually be appointed Chairman of the Planning Board?

Would former County Councilmember (and current Leggett aide) Bruce Adams have been able to follow a more achievable path to becoming County Executive in 1994, if he was running as someone other than the “anointed” successor to Potter?

Would then-Planning Board Chairman Gus Bauman have ever launched an upstart run for County Executive in the open-seat 1994 election, as Potter – often labeled the “10th County Councilmember” – stepped away from the County Executive job to run for County Council again? Most observers contend that Bauman’s third-place finish in the primary election siphoned off enough Bruce Adams votes to propel Doug Duncan to victory.

Would Andy Sonner (former Montgomery County State’s Attorney and Kramer rival who reportedly commissioned a poll in that summer of 1990, indicating that he didn’t have the name recognition to challenge Kramer, but that perhaps 20-year Council member Neil Potter did?) have run himself for county executive against Kramer, just for spite? And if he did so and lost, would he have never been in position to realize his later career accomplishment of being appointed as a judge?

Would Montgomery County look different today if Neal Potter had never sent legislation over to the County Council to strip the County Executive (including himself, during his term) of the power to appoint members of the Planning Board and to craft a recommended annual growth policy?

Would the concept of smart growth ever have taken hold statewide in the administration of former Governor Parris Glendening, if folks like Gene Lynch had not brought it with them from the land of “wedges and corridors?” (Meaning from – you guessed it – a Montgomery County with a General Plan and agricultural reserve shaped many years earlier by people like a young Neal Potter. And lest we forget how that future county executive’s involvement in local politics, and his views on growth, were shaped largely by his observations of how a powerful State Highway Administration in the 1950s had brazenly claimed his parents’ farm to make way for construction of the Capital Beltway.)

So you see, Montgomery County… 1990 really was a pretty transforming year! Twenty years later, it’s kind of fun to look back on it with “20-20 hindsight.”

-- Steve Simon is an independent public relations consultant. In 1990, he was a Montgomery County public information officer, who will never forget the shock of those gathered in the election press room, when it was announced that Neal Potter had pulled off his stunning upset.