Colleagues defend, decry Subin's verbal attack on Ewing
Tom Fedor/The Gazette
ROCKVILLE -- After congratulating themselves on surviving a months-long budget session, most Montgomery County Council members shuttled off to a celebratory picnic Thursday before embarking on a weeklong recess.
Thursday's blithe atmosphere, however, was a sharp departure from an angry episode that took place in the council chamber last week, when Councilman Blair G. Ewing (D-At large) of Silver Spring said he was threatened physically by fellow Councilman Michael L. Subin (D-At large) of Gaithersburg following a heated meeting over taxes and the budget.
Some lawmakers and observers said the incident laid bare the tension that has been simmering among legislators since last fall, when Ewing announced plans to forge a team of candidates to topple several of his current colleagues, including Subin and Council President Steven A. Silverman (D-At large) of Silver Spring.
According to Ewing, Subin stepped closely in front of him after last week's budget vote and said: "'I'm gonna cut your balls off, I'm gonna get you.'" Subin then turned away when Ewing said, "Don't threaten me." Subin turned around and repeated the phrase. At that point, Councilman Isiah Leggett (D-At large) of Burtonsville stepped between the two and pushed Subin away. Several council members confirmed that they witnessed the confrontation.
Ewing said he considered filing a formal complaint with the state's attorney but decided not to.
On Wednesday, Subin issued an apology: "While I regret my use of inappropriate language, I assure you it was used figuratively and was in no way meant to be a literal threat." Through a spokesman, he declined on Thursday to comment further and did not attend the council picnic because of a prior commitment.
Not the first time
For many in Montgomery's political community, the confrontation -- first reported Wednesday by The Gazette -- was the most shocking public display of Subin's notorious temper.
Subin, a four-term incumbent, is known for his volatile disposition. Most of the time, he plays the role of the charming statesman or merry prankster. On occasion, however, he is the schoolyard bully. Many of his current and former colleagues can vividly recount stories of Subin yelling and cursing at them. An online search of Subin and his temper brings up more than 30 newspaper stories that date all the way back to the 1980s.
Ewing said that while he was on the Montgomery County school board in the 1980s and '90s, the councilman yelled and cursed at him on a regular basis.
Neal Potter (D), a former county executive and council member in the 1980s and '90s, remembers when a dispute years ago over a council memorandum led to an impromptu tirade in a bathroom.
"He caught me in the washroom once and started screaming at me. He was clearly out of control, but that was all that came out of it," said Potter, 88. "I was disturbed by it. He does certainly need to do something to get it under control. He may turn to violence. He's pretty close sometimes."
Terry L. Lierman, a Democrat who nearly unseated eight-time incumbent U.S. Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Dist. 8) of Bethesda in 2000, said he was the recipient of a "vitriolic assault" earlier this year after delivering a speech at a Democratic fund-raiser. In the speech, he urged council members to approve new living wage legislation. Subin, seen by many as a swing vote, phoned Lierman the next day to express his displeasure over the speech.
"I didn't realize who it was because the voice was swearing and cursing," he said. "Finally, I realized that it was Mike Subin."
He added: "Mike Subin has abused me verbally like no public official ever has."
Two years ago, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) voiced his frustrations with Subin, then council president.
"He has been by far the worst council president I've had to deal with," Duncan said at the time. Subin countered by saying that he refused to engage in "personal attacks."
"Everybody knows he does this," Ewing said this week. "Nothing justifies what he did. It's very clear: He violated the law."
But many of Subin's colleagues, friends and foes alike, say his outbursts are born out of an intense sense of duty to the community. He is a Navy veteran and highly regarded for his decades of public service, particularly in education.
"There were times where [Subin] had some temper tantrums," said Montgomery school board Vice President Patricia B. O' Neill of Bethesda. "But I never was on the end of the phone where it was burning my ears. I think there's no better champion for the schools, this year in particular. Everybody just knows that's Mike."
Some say temperamental politicians -- such as former President Bill Clinton and, closer to home, state Sen. President Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Dist. 27) of Chesapeake Beach -- are simply a part of politics as usual.
"I'm not excusing [Subin's] statement, which I think is inappropriate, but this was a heat-of-the-moment statement," said Council President Steven A. Silverman (D-At large) of Silver Spring. "I don't think we should blow it out of proportion. He didn't slug anybody."
Others view last week's incident as more serious.
"Being the recipient of a vitriolic assault from Mike Subin, I would say that this kind of behavior cannot be kissed off as, 'Well, that's just Mike,'" Lierman said.
Leggett, a four-term incumbent and one of Montgomery's most prominent statesmen, called Subin's comments "over the line."
However, he said that growing philosophical and personal differences, exacerbated by Ewing's decision to form his own team of candidates, have further divided the council.
Some of Subin's closest allies, while condemning his behavior, said Ewing's ceaseless criticisms of budget priorities and shortfalls in mental health services have added to an increasingly tense political environment. At last week's meeting, Ewing criticized the school construction budget as being inadequate and said revenues from a recordation tax increase -- proposed by Subin -- were appropriated without public input.
"Blair is a continual demagogue and says things that infuriate a lot of people," said Stanton J. Gildenhorn, former chairman of the Montgomery Democratic Central Committee, who shares a law office with Subin. "Does that justify this incident? Absolutely not."
"There are real differences in approach between Ewing and Subin, and I'm sure that some of that spills over," said Richard N. Parsons, president of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce and a frequent critic of Ewing. "Obviously, when you go into an election and you're going to recruit candidates, there's going to be some tension."
Silverman went further, saying Ewing has become politically isolated. "In a nine-member body, to make these pronouncements, you're quickly going to get a reputation of not getting along in the sandbox."
Ewing countered by saying that his critics were attempting to shift blame and make light of a serious incident. Moreover, he rejected the notion that he has grown isolated.
"In order to be isolated, you have to have no friends. And I have friends," he said. "I see myself as having different views as it relates to the pace of growth and development. ... What I do on the council is speak my mind."