Opinion: MoCo Political Awards, 2018
The highs and lows of a dizzying election year
In honor of former Gazette columnist Blair Lee’s annual best and worst awards columns, I hereby present the MoCo Political Awards for 2018.
Story of the year: Peter Bang’s embezzlement
Former economic development official Peter Bang’s theft of $6.7 million from the county government is the biggest scandal in modern MoCo history. The resulting report from the county’s Inspector General contains shocking revelations of mismanagement and neglect in the Department of Economic Development, which is now abolished. (Check out pages 8 and 9 if you dare!) This incident – an extremely unusual one in MoCo – will stain the county’s reputation for clean government for years to come.
MoCo Politicians of the year (tie): State Sen. Brian Feldman and Delegates Ariana Kelly and Marc Korman
Feldman and Korman were major leaders in the successful battle to pass dedicated funding for Metro, a huge priority for MoCo. Kelly was the lead sponsor in the House of Delegates of a landmark bill to crack down on sexual harassment in Annapolis. She took major risks to get it passed that would have deterred lots of other lawmakers. All three left legacies that will be appreciated well into the future.
Political move of the year: MCEA endorses Marc Elrich
The Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA), wielder of the mighty Apple Ballot, almost did not pick a candidate in the Montgomery County Executive election. But after considering the race twice, the teachers endorsed Marc Elrich less than three weeks out from the primary. The unprecedented late decision prevented Elrich from making full use of the endorsement in his mail, but it still made a critical difference in his 77-vote victory over businessman David Blair. Now let’s see if Elrich can deliver for the teachers in very tight budget times.
If the Apple Ballot was the key decider in the county executive race, Roger Berliner’s decision to attack Blair in mail and TV was the other big factor. Berliner compared Blair to President Donald Trump and told voters to vote for anyone other than Blair. Considering the fact that Berliner’s campaign spent more than $900,000 during the primary, his attacks could easily have cost Blair the election.
Worst mistake of the year: Del. Bill Frick
First appointed in 2007, Frick put together a great career in the House of Delegates, ascending to the Parliamentarian and majority leader positions. A favorite of leadership, Frick would have been in a solid position to succeed Attorney General Brian Frosh if he had simply stayed in the House and raised money from his wealthy district. Instead, he jumped into the county executive race (after running for Congress) and finished last with just 4 percent of the vote. Will the hero of the End the Monopoly movement be back or is he done?
Montgomery Neighbors PAC formed to oppose county executive candidate Nancy Floreen and said it was “promoting integrity in Montgomery County elections.” Then it accepted $14,000 in excess contributions, was directed to return them by the State Board of Elections and incurred an additional penalty of $1,400.
Surprise of the year: David Blair comes within 77 votes of winning
Self-funding businessman David Blair did not fit the profile of a Montgomery county executive. Every executive elected since 1970 possessed experience in government at some level, including prior elected office. None came exclusively from the private sector like Blair. Also, self-funding candidates had a history of underperforming in MoCo. But Blair combined a savvy message connecting economic growth and tax restraint, a huge endorsement by The Washington Post and – yes – lots of money to come oh-so-close to victory.
Best candidates who did not win other than Blair (tie): Ben Shnider and Samir Paul
Shnider and Paul are two of a kind. Both are young, wonky progressives who preach smart growth, ran great grass-roots campaigns and had strong union support. Both unite progressive values with economic opportunity, proving that the two can and should go together. Paul lost a heartbreaker election for an open seat to newcomer Sara Love while Shnider came closer than most people predicted to unseating incumbent District 3 County Council Member Sidney Katz, who has been in county or municipal office for 40 years.
District 18 delegate candidate Leslie Milano went from a complete unknown to the darling of many district activists in just a couple months. Council at-large candidates Brandy Brooks and Chris Wilhelm ran as “Team Progressive,” collected many important endorsements and outperformed their fundraising. Fellow at-large candidate Marilyn Balcombe finished fifth and has a great chance to succeed District 2 County Council Member Craig Rice, who is term limited, in four years. Expect at least half of these six candidates to be elected someday.
Elected official who will be most missed: Ike Leggett
Former County Executive Ike Leggett will be remembered for two things: saving the county from financial disaster and demonstrating the highest levels of class, dignity and civility while in office. Public opinion of him will only become warmer as the years go by.
Del. Sheila Hixson was a trailblazer, a role model and an Annapolis powerhouse for decades. Council member Roger Berliner, the first Democrat to be elected by District 1 residents to the council, was a consummate legislator who balanced competing interests and passed more environmental bills than any MoCo council member ever. Board of Education Member Jill Ortman-Fouse was a conscientious, super-responsive watchdog who pushed the boundaries of what school board members do. State Sen. Rich Madaleno has brought his talent for numbers to the Elrich administration, where he is now the budget director.
Best campaign surrogates (tie): Caren Madsen (for Marc Elrich), Karen Murphy (for George Leventhal), Diana Conway (for Bill Conway) and Barbara Goldberg Goldman (for Roger Berliner)
Great campaign surrogates are more valuable than gold and no one is more golden than these ladies. They’re smarter than you. They’re tougher than you. They will outwork you. And they are fiercely protective of those who are lucky enough to earn their loyalty. (My backside still aches from their boot heels!) If these four women ever join forces behind a single candidate – watch out! – that election is as good as over.
Best new activist: Laura Stewart
Every election cycle produces a new group of activists in MoCo. The best of this year’s crop is PTA leader Laura Stewart, whose tenacity, studiousness and work ethic is respected (and sometimes dreaded!) by many MoCo politicians. Originally focusing on school construction, Stewart is now the PTAs’ vice president of advocacy, guaranteeing that no MCPS issue will avoid her attention. If she stays in the game, she will be a force for years to come.
Best new media outlet: Maryland Matters
Josh Kurtz’s baby grew up in a hurry. Maryland Matters went from an idea to perhaps the most granular place for state and local political reporting from Western Maryland to downy oshun. Long may it prosper!
Ryan Miner is not new to political writing in Western Maryland, but he had new impact on MoCo elections last year through his knack of landing big scoops. Two examples include stories on Congressman John Delaney running for president and congressional candidate David Trone’s health.
Best media executive: Steve Hull
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking – way to butter up the boss, Pagnucco! I plead guilty. But everyone reading this knows this to be true: without Bethesda Magazine, MoCo would be close to a news desert. Hull doesn’t have to devote resources to reporting on politics and government. His revenue comes from articles on restaurants, traffic and crime. But he regards civic affairs as part of his mission. All of us benefit.
Biggest impact by a public official: Casey Anderson
Assuming that Planning Board Chairman Casey Anderson is reappointed this coming summer – something that County Executive Elrich might oppose – he will be serving as chairman for up to nine years with an additional three years on the board. That’s enough time for the master plans approved by Anderson and his planning board colleagues, which so far have been modified only slightly by the county council, to remake huge swaths of the county.
Anderson believes not only in transit-oriented development, but also in bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly plans that minimize auto use and locate employment and residential uses together. By the time he’s done, Anderson will leave a bigger legacy in the county than just about any other public official here – and that assumes he doesn’t someday run for office.
Labor union of the year: SEIU Local 500
SEIU Local 500, likely the fastest growing large union in the state, could have rested on its laurels. But the local decided to do the unthinkable: take on the undisputed Democratic Party boss, Senate President Mike “Big Daddy” Miller, for killing the union’s bills. Local 500 didn’t knock Miller off his perch, but it did help get rid of a few of his lieutenants and showed Big Daddy it could draw blood if necessary.
On a related note, let’s recognize David Rodich, who is retiring after 20 years as Local 500’s executive director. I worked in the labor movement for 16 years and I have met very few labor leaders like Rodich. He represented his members as effectively as anyone, but he is also a true visionary who can see MoCo and the state from 30,000 feet and understands how all of our many communities link together and need each other. Public life simply cannot have enough people in it like Rodich.
Best campaign video: George Leventhal
You know you want to watch it again, so here it is!
Best campaign mailer: Emily Shetty
No words are necessary.
Worst campaign website: County Above Party PAC
Considering that they spent more than half a million dollars to get Nancy Floreen elected as executive, the County Above Party PAC should have had more than a one-page, skeletal website. Here it is folks, straight outta 1998.
Newest power players: Progressive Maryland and the Democratic Socialists
Founded by Tom Hucker years before he became an elected official, Progressive Maryland played its biggest role ever in a MoCo election by starting a six-digit super PAC to take on the opponents of its favored candidate, Marc Elrich. The Democratic Socialists provided critical ground troops to support Elrich’s campaign and also helped to get Gabriel Acevero and Vaughn Stewart elected to the House of Delegates. The big question now is what they do next.
Worst claim of the year: Elrich says he never takes money from developers and their attorneys
Elrich has made this claim for a long time and it has now been disproved twice. Instead of backing off, Elrich doubled down, telling the Woman’s Democratic Club, “I also continue my practice of not accepting contributions (even small ones) from developers and their attorneys.” Even some of Elrich’s supporters concede that the claim is not true so it’s a mystery why he won’t stop making it.
The Republican Governors Association ran a TV ad calling Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous a socialist when he was in fact a venture capitalist who invested in numerous businesses, some in Maryland. But the false claim worked, getting Jealous to curse on camera and fueling stories about his problems as a candidate.
Poll number of the year: Many Marylanders don’t think the state spends their tax dollars wisely
Forget about the horse race numbers. A September 2018 Goucher College poll asked Marylanders, “How much trust do you have in the Maryland state government to spend your tax dollars wisely?” Twenty percent said none, 35 percent said a little, 34 percent said some and just 8 percent said a lot. Among Democrats, 46 percent said none or a little and 52 percent said some or a lot. Among MoCo and Prince George’s County residents, 49 percent said none or a little and 48 percent said some or a lot. This kind of lukewarm attitude about government spending makes tax hikes a hard sell, even for some Democrats, and is exacerbated by events like the Peter Bang scandal.
Political survivor: Joy Nurmi
MoCo government veteran Joy Nurmi has had three bosses pass away and another one retire but she has outlasted them all. A former Gazette editor, she has been a chief of staff to Council Members Betty Ann Krahnke, Marilyn Praisner and Don Praisner and served as East County Regional Director and special assistant to former County Executive Ike Leggett. Now she’s the chief of staff to new council member Gabe Albornoz. Nurmi is tougher than a horse whip, has seen everything and forgets absolutely nothing. Anyone who is foolish enough to mess with Albornoz should think twice before taking on MoCo’s ultimate political survivor.
This column is already waaaaaay too long, so that’s enough. On to the new year!
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.