Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Praisner defeats Fennel in District 4

Democrat beats Republican by 2-1 margin in Tuesday contest for County Council seat

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Charles E. Shoemaker⁄The Gazette
Outside the polling place at Leisure World retirement community in Aspen Hill, Leonard and Marilyn Burchman talk with Democrat Donald Praisner, a Calverton resident and candidate for the District 4 County Council special election, before the two cast their vote Tuesday morning.
Democrat Donald Praisner won the special election for the County Council District 4 seat by a landslide Tuesday night, beating Republican Mark D. Fennel by a 2-1 margin.

Praisner, 75, a Calverton resident and retired CIA analyst, will fill the seat last held by his wife, Marilyn J. Praisner, who died in February.

Praisner had 5,881 votes to Fennel’s 2,991 as of 10:30 p.m., according to county Board of Elections numbers.

Praisner said he is looking forward to serving on the council.

‘‘While I know all my colleagues, I’ve never really worked with them, so we need to sit down and see where we’re coming from,” he said. ‘‘I’m not going to rush in and make any changes of any kind, though. I’m there to learn.”

Fennel, 42, a Silver Spring resident and marketing analyst, said he called Praisner to congratulate him after results from all 45 precincts were reported. He complimented his opponent, calling him a ‘‘gentleman and a scholar,” and said he was proud of the campaign he ran.

‘‘Although he wasn’t as far right as I was, he was probably the closest of all the candidates to my views on budgets and taxes,” Fennel said.

Like the April 15 primary that preceded it, Tuesday’s special election saw a low turnout, with only 10 percent of 83,912 registered voters, or 8,896 overall, casting ballots.

By the time polls closed Tuesday, the county Board of Elections had received 296 absentee ballots out of a total of about 500 issued, board spokeswoman Marjorie Roher said. Absentee ballots can still be received by 10 a.m. May 23, she said.

District 4, which includes parts of Burtonsville, Silver Spring, Cloverly, Colesville, Wheaton, Aspen Hill, Olney, Sandy Spring and Ashton, as well as the retirement communities of Leisure World and Riderwood Village, is slightly older, less affluent and more diverse than other parts of the county.

Praisner will be sworn in May 23, one day after the council is to adopt next year’s budget. Analysts have said Tuesday’s winner could be a crucial swing vote on the nine-member council on issues ranging from taxes to the pace of development.

‘‘Everybody’s watching here because there are so many 4-4 votes split in the council,” council spokesman Neil H. Greenberger said before the results came in Tuesday. ‘‘This election is very important.”

Praisner built his campaign on his wife’s legacy and on his support of slow-growth policies that he says will not overwhelm the county’s infrastructure.

As a result, Praisner won endorsements from several elected officials, including County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) and four council members: Philip M. Andrews (D-Dist. 3) of Gaithersburg, Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Potomac, Marc Elrich (D-At large) of Takoma Park and Duchy Trachtenberg (D-At large) of North Bethesda.

Praisner said Tuesday he thought the most important priority for the council was to begin work on next year’s budget and see if any costs could be eliminated.

‘‘Next year’s going to be just as bad as this year [in terms of the economy and a budget deficit] and we need to start looking at next year,” he said.

Praisner reaffirmed that he would only serve out the remainder of his wife’s term and not seek re-election in 2010. He said he did not plan on being a placeholder and was moved to tears when asked what he thought his wife would think of his victory.

‘‘I don’t consider myself to be a caretaker, that’s far from the truth,” he said. ‘‘I expect to be a very major player.”

Voters who cast a ballot for Praisner on Tuesday said his slow-growth stance and their familiarity with him and his wife contributed to their support.

‘‘We don’t need a change,” said Silver Spring resident Ed Wetzler. ‘‘As a community member, I really liked Marilyn Praisner and I know what she stood for.”

Wetzler said he doesn’t like the Intercounty Connector and other major projects, and says he hopes that with a Praisner back on the council the county might see more controlled development.

‘‘I think we need slow growth,” he said. ‘‘We’ve got to take stock of what we’re trying to do and reassess where we are.”

Colesville resident Mort Fox and his wife, Esther, said they also voted for Praisner because they liked the work his wife did.

‘‘He was always sympathetic to what his wife did and they’re two of a kind, with a shared vision,” said Fox, 85.

In the shortened campaign season — the primary was April 15 — many observers said Praisner had an unbeatable edge because of his widespread name recognition throughout the district, which Marilyn Praisner represented for 17 years.

Fennel, the 2006 Republican nominee for the District 4 seat and director of the nonprofit group Citizens Against Government Waste, campaigned against increasing property taxes. He said several times that the county does not need a ‘‘lame-duck placeholder” on the council.

Supported by the limited-tax advocate Robin Ficker, Fennel tried to overcome a lack of name recognition by posting well-traveled roads in District 4 with campaign signs and making frequent appearances at community meetings.

In the campaign’s final days, Fennel began to criticize Praisner for not having attended more candidate forums. And last week, his campaign lambasted the county Board of Elections for sending out more than 100,000 corrected sample ballots in what his campaign said was an effort to increase turnout in Praisner’s favor. The first batch omitted the party designations of either candidate.

Fennel also suffered from a significant fundraising disadvantage, raising slightly more than $4,100 — $1,655 of which he donated to himself — compared to the more than $27,000 that Praisner raised.

Fennel said Tuesday he planned to remain active in civic affairs and advance the messages of his campaign.

‘‘There’s definitely a disconnect between the excessive amount of government spending and the ability for us to sustain that government,” he said. ‘‘This has been going on for 10 years and it’s part of the tax-and-spend culture of Montgomery County, and I think it would really be much better for Montgomery County and its citizens if we addressed the issues of excessive taxation.”

Fennel said it was ‘‘wakeup call to the political establishment” that the two candidates primary voters chose to face off in the general election were the strongest advocates for strict fiscal policies.

‘‘In a sense, the support that I have is a testament to the firepower that Don will be able to draw on when he faces these budget battles,” Fennel said.

In the April 15 Democratic primary, Praisner edged out school board President Nancy Navarro, with 44 percent of the vote to Navarro’s 39, even after the Navarro campaign raised more than $34,000 in just six weeks.

Navarro had the support of many labor organizations, and in the weeks after the primary, Praisner said he did not feel beholden to unions as a result.

Political pollster G. Keith Haller said because Praisner will not seek re-election, he would not need to worry about reaching out to Democratic voters who did not support him in the primary.

‘‘It’s the opposite question. These groups should be reaching out to him,” said Haller, president of Potomac Inc. in Bethesda. ‘‘They’re the ones that have dug themselves in the hole. Don has all the political capital in the world. He’s not worried about his political fate tomorrow.”

Praisner was forced to leave the campaign trail for several days after being hospitalized April 2. The 75-year-old attributed the incident to stress, saying he felt fine after a few days later.

Drew Powell, executive director of Neighbors for a Better Montgomery and a former candidate for mayor of Rockville, said Praisner would do a good job following his wife’s legacy and working with the council.

‘‘He’s a team player,” Powell said. ‘‘He didn’t do this for money. He didn’t do this for power. He did this because he felt in his grief that it was the right thing to do, that it was the right thing to do for the county.” Election results

Donald Praisner (D) 5,881

Mark D. Fennel (R) 2,991

With 45 out of 45 precincts reporting at 10:30 p.m.