Opinion: Gino and the Fall Guys
The politics behind pay raises for county government workers
After the details of County Executive Marc Elrich’s new labor contracts were revealed, The Washington Post editorial page went on the attack and debate erupted as to their affordability. Some County Council members have expressed great concern about whether the contracts are consistent with a sustainable budget. But make no mistake – the contracts are not just budgetary documents, they are political ones. And they are backed up by the most ruthless enforcer in MoCo politics: MCGEO president Gino Renne.
MCGEO is the largest county employee union outside of the school system. Gino (no one calls him Mr. Renne) is its founder and the only president the union has known for decades. Tough, cunning and darkly charismatic, it’s a mystery why Gino was never cast as an extra in a Martin Scorsese movie. While he adopts a blustering, theatrical demeanor in public, Gino is savvy, pragmatic and occasionally even charming behind closed doors. He is a master at playing a weak hand and making it look strong. As if his control of MCGEO was not enough, Gino also exerts sway over the Metropolitan Washington AFL-CIO and Progressive Maryland, both of which depend on his union’s dues to survive. Gino has seen generations of politicians come and go. At present, no politician in Rockville can match him.
Gino and one of his favorite county employees. Photo: Kevin Gillogly and Seventh State.
Besides scarfing down Italian food, mocking Ravens fans (Gino is a Pittsburgh boy) and cleaning out county executives at the bargaining table, Gino’s great talent is his ability to torment politicians. In MoCo’s passive aggressive, whispery political culture, his lunch bucket pugnacity stands out.
Here are a few examples from just the last decade.
May 2008: When Council members Phil Andrews and Duchy Trachtenberg, both of whom were originally elected with MCGEO’s endorsement, threatened to cut union raises by 2%, MCGEO distributed a “Wanted” flyer accusing them of being “contract busters and COLA thieves.” A year later, MCGEO targeted them at the Democratic ball with another flyer comparing them to infamous U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
April 2010: Protesting planned furloughs in County Executive Ike Leggett’s proposed budget, MCGEO held a huge rally on top of the County Council’s garage. The union lampooned Leggett’s $65,000 bathroom by bringing out a golden toilet, which was so heavy that it required four muscle-bound union members to carry it.
Photo: Adam Pagnucco and Maryland Politics Watch.
June 2010: Upset with former school Superintendent Jerry Weast’s success in winning big budgets from the council as well as the influence of the teachers union’s Apple Ballot, MCGEO made support for MCPS an issue in its endorsement questionnaire. Among the questions designed to make politicians squirm, MCGEO asked incumbent council members, “Do you admit that Jerry Weast is a better negotiator than you?”
December 2010: After new Council member Hans Riemer, barely 24 hours in office, voted for an arbitration bill opposed by MCGEO, Gino sneered at Riemer, “You’re going to be a one-termer, pal. Welcome to the big leagues.” Riemer won his next two elections, both of them without MCGEO’s endorsement.
April 2011: Aggrieved by County Executive Ike Leggett’s proposed budget which included benefit cuts, MCGEO brought two goats to his office to protest “scapegoating” the workforce. Rumor had it that the well-fed goats may have left a few little surprises in the executive office lobby.
September 2011: After then-Council President Valerie Ervin pushed through a budget containing employee benefit cuts, MCGEO launched a website against her entitled “The Real Valerie Ervin.” On top of that, someone hired MCGEO’s regular PR vendor to launch a second site called “Valerie Ervin Unmasked” two years later.
July 2011-February 2014: This one has some history. In 2011, the County Council unanimously passed a bill repealing the ability of the police union to bargain over the effects of management decisions. They were still allowed to bargain over wages, benefits and working conditions, the traditional system used in the private sector. The police union petitioned the repeal to the ballot in 2012. The Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee (MCDCC), the governing body of the county’s Democratic Party, voted to support the repeal bill after its precinct officials overwhelmingly voted to support it in a raucous party meeting. In November 2012, county voters upheld effects bargaining repeal on a 58%-42% vote. The following year, MCGEO led a picket of the Democrats’ spring ball, their major fundraising event, as punishment for MCDCC’s support of the repeal bill. Gino said, “Labor will not tolerate being treated as an ATM and foot soldiers for a party which is often indifferent — and sometimes openly hostile — to working families in Montgomery County.” The dispute ended in 2014 when the party surrendered and MCGEO implemented a “bloodless coup,” packing MCDCC with its picks – including one of the union’s staffers.
November 2015: When state Del. Bill Frick introduced a bill that would have allowed voters to get rid of the county’s liquor monopoly, MCGEO – which represents the monopoly’s employees – sprang to its defense. Gino filed an ethics complaint against Frick, whose wife worked for a liquor manufacturer, and threatened to investigate any state legislator voting for the bill. Gino said, “We’re going to overturn every rock in their lives to find out about their lifestyles and how those lifestyles are being supported… If I find any hint of legal improprieties, you can bet I will blow the whistle on it. I’m not suggesting it’s there, but they better hope it’s not.”
(Disclosure: I was Riemer’s chief of staff in 2010-2014 and I ran the anti-liquor monopoly campaign in 2015-2016.)
May 2017: Del. Kirill Reznik co-sponsored Frick’s bill to end the liquor monopoly and Gino never forgot it. As Reznik prepared to run for re-election, Gino wrote on his Facebook page, “Thanks for your unproductive representation. I’m one of your constituents who believes you bring no value to our district’s representation in Annapolis. You were appointed to the seat which gave you the advantage of incumbency. This time around there are several quality candidates running for delegate in our district. I and many others intend to do whatever is necessary to unseat you. District 39 can do better and deserves better than you. You now have the benefit of more unsolicited intel.” Reznik was re-elected last year and now serves alongside one of Gino’s employees who ran in the same race.
(An aside: I really hope that Gino forgives me for writing these things about him, because when I renegotiate my contract with Bethesda Beat, I’d like to hire him to represent me. Steve Hull can afford to give me a 9 percent raise, don’t you think?)
And now we get to this year’s labor contracts. County Executive Marc Elrich is a smart fellow and knows very well that he is pushing the envelope on his negotiated agreements. After all, he had to loot the county’s retiree health benefits fund to pay for them, and that was only for one year. How does he pay for them next year and all the years thereafter?
By sending these contracts to the County Council, Elrich is setting them up as fall guys. The council members now have a tough choice. If they fully fund the contracts, they are increasing the chances that they will either have to approve a future tax hike to pay for them or that they will have to break the contracts during the next recession. (Let’s remember: the latter event has happened before.) But if they don’t fully fund them, Elrich gets to be the good guy with labor while Gino gets to be Gino.
Forget about the press conferences, the boring committee packets and the shiny videos prepared by council communications staff – for the four new council members, this is a true Welcome to the Council moment.
Adam Pagnucco is a writer, researcher and consultant who is a former chief of staff at the County Council. He has worked in the labor movement and has had clients in labor, business and politics.