Gelman Recalled as ‘Most Powerful Woman’ in County Politics Over Past 40 Years
Funeral services scheduled Friday morning for former County Council member
Esther Gelman, center, pictured with husband Norm Gelman (right) and Catherine Leggett (left) at a fundraiser
Funeral services are scheduled Friday morning for Esther Gelman, a Potomac resident and former County Council member described by one friend and associate as “the most powerful woman in Montgomery County politics for more than 40 years.”
Gelman “was a force to reckon with and many feared her and her power. She was a master at putting the ‘deal’ together and achieving her goals completely,” said former County Council member Gail Ewing, who served as Gelman’s chief of staff in the early 1980s during the latter part of Gelman’s term on the council. “Her actions were rarely about compromise, it was always about winning what Esther thought was right. And, yet, she was fiercely loyal to her friends and family and those who lobbied her for issues she supported.”
Gelman died Monday morning, a week short of her 85th birthday, following several years of failing health. Her funeral will be held at 11:30 at Adat Shalom, 7727 Persimmon Tree Lane in Bethesda. Shiva will be observed Sunday, Monday and Tuesday at the family home in Potomac; Gelman is survived by her husband of 65 years, Norman Gelman, and two daughters.
With a style alternately described by those who knew her as loud, direct and blunt, Gelman served a term on the Montgomery County Planning Board in the early 1970s before her election to the first of three terms on the County Council—where her legislative accomplishments included the region’s first ban on smoking in the workplace and establishment of a crisis center for victims of abuse.
She also emerged as the leader of one of two rival factions whose battles influenced county Democratic politics for the better part of two decades.
One of Gelman’s rare defeats came in 1986, when she lost a bid for the Democratic nomination for Congress in the 8th District. But, while never holding public office again, Gelman remained a behind-the-scenes power in local Democratic politics for another quarter of a century. She was a key supporter of then-state Sen. Chris Van Hollen in the latter’s upset victory over then-Del. Mark Shriver in the 2002 congressional primary in the 8th District—putting Van Hollen on a path where he is now heavily favored this November to become the first U.S. senator from the county in more than a century.
Gelman was born in Baltimore in 1931, graduating cum laude from the University of Colorado in 1952. Her political involvement began in the early 1960s, with involvement in the Montgomery County Democratic Party and various several civic and neighborhood organizations.
She worked as a local newspaper correspondent covering the Maryland-National Capital Parking and Planning Commission (MNCPPC) for a couple of years in the late 1960s. It was not long before she found herself making news rather than covering it: In 1970, Gelman was named as a member of the planning board, an arm of the MNCPPC. She forged a close association with Royce Hanson, then serving the first of two stints as board chairman.
Elected to the council in 1974, Gelman served as president in 1984 while also doing a stint as president of the Maryland Association of Counties. But, according to Ewing, “she was best known…for her total immersion into planning for the master plans and sector plans that have led to Montgomery County as it looks today.”
Added Ewing, “As an example, all those attending the Universities of Shady Grove can thank Esther Gelman for having the foresight and vision to bring the University of Maryland to Montgomery County so many years ago.”
Gelman also used her clout to shape the planning board, on which she had served, for years to come. When Hanson stepped down as board chairman in 1980, Gelman was instrumental in the naming of Norman Christeller, a former council colleague, as Hanson’s successor. Christeller served until 1989, when Gelman, although off the council by that time, successfully pushed for the appointment of Gus Bauman, a former planning board attorney, to get the post.
Gelman, in alliance with her council colleague David Scull, headed a faction of the Democratic Party that collided repeatedly throughout the 1980s with a rival faction led by then-state Sens. Sidney Kramer and Ida Ruben.
The issue was not ideological: Both Gelman and Kramer were regarded as liberal Democrats with pro-business leanings. Instead, political insiders say, it was a clash of different governing styles as well as personal and regional animosities: Gelman and Scull hailed from Potomac, while Kramer and Ruben had Silver Spring as their home base.
In 1986, Scull lost to Kramer in the Democratic primary for county executive, and Gelman sought the party’s nomination in the 8th Congressional District. She came in second in a multicandidate field to state Sen. Stewart Bainum, who was allied with the Kramer-Ruben faction. The deep party split contributed to the victory of then-state Del. Connie Morella, a Republican, over Bainum in that year’s general election.
The Gelman faction exacted revenge four years later—recruiting Gelman’s long-time council colleague, Neal Potter of Chevy Chase, to challenge Kramer for a second term as county executive. To virtually everyone’s surprise, Potter won.
Meanwhile, following her 1986 defeat, Gelman had formed a private consulting firm, and served as an adviser to many individuals and groups seeking to influence county government. But she remained a visible presence at Democratic Party events, and did not hesitate to offer her opinion publicly on local policy issues.
“The current Montgomery County Council does not seem to understand how its government operates,” she gibed in a 2011 letter to The Washington Post, in which she accused the council of undercutting the Planning Board in a controversy surrounding Wal-Mart’s attempts to open a store in the county.
A measure of Gelman’s continuing clout came in 2008, when, despite being out of public office for more than two decades, an informal reader survey by the Maryland Politics Watch blog found Gelman in 10th place among the most influential non-elected individuals in the county.
Wrote one respondent: “Esther Gelman is an informal advisor to nearly all MoCo electeds, and her wisdom is unprecedented. She is a practical activist who will not abandon the good in pursuit of the perfect.”
Said Ewing: “Her power was enormous. Yet she had a wonderful sense of humor and even people who considered her an enemy enjoyed interacting with her and sharing her stories and laughs.”