Category Archives: Council At-Large

It’s Time for Accountable, Engaged and Strong Leadership

By Hoan Dang, Candidate for Montgomery County Council (At-Large).

Life was not easy for me when I came to this country. I was only eight years old when I fled the Vietnam War with my family.  Our journey to America began with living in refugee camps, and then in a crammed two-bedroom apartment with 18 other family members.  But my parents worked hard to save up, and eventually settled in Bethesda.  At first, I thought anywhere was better than what I had previously experienced. But it soon became clear that Montgomery County was a special place.

What Montgomery County had to offer us was priceless. The county had families like the Kreckes and the Gustafsons, our neighbors who did not hesitate to welcome us and help us adapt to our new life in America. The county had a strong public education system because I had MCPS teachers who invested in my future even though English wasn’t my first language. The county also had unparalleled opportunities for me to volunteer in my community. In the spring of 1979, I joined the Boy Scouts of America, and eventually, I became an Eagle Scout, which was when I first felt empowered to give back to the community that had given so much to me and my family.  These experiences, which had a profound impact on my life, embody the progressive values of Montgomery County.

Since leading my first community service project, I have worked hard to uplift our county’s diverse communities for the past 35 years. My public service brought me to work with many others who had stories similar to mine.  As former President and Board Chair of the Association of Vietnamese Americans (AVA), I led efforts to resettle over 25,000 refugees and immigrants who needed to secure housing, obtain jobs, prepare for U.S. citizenship tests, and apply for services from government agencies. As a product of our great education system myself, I believe in the importance of investing in students, which is why I have served on the board of the George B. Thomas, Sr. Learning Academy for the past 16 years. During my tenure, the Academy’s flagship Saturday school program has academically uplifted over 3,000 students annually at 12 different locations across Montgomery County.

Now, I’m running at-large because I want to ensure that our county remains a safe and welcoming community, with better opportunities for all residents. Montgomery County is a great place to live and work, but we are also facing challenges that demand innovative solutions in local government. The county’s population has almost doubled in the past 40 years, leading to overcrowded schools, horrible traffic congestion, and higher taxes for our residents. With the real threat of shrinking resources from the federal government and a slow-growing economy right here at home, we need a leader on the County Council who has a vision for a better Montgomery County.

My vision for our county is a safe and welcoming community, with a booming economy, excellent schools and a fast transportation system, where residents are empowered to better their lives and the lives of others. To achieve this vision, as your next County Councilmember At-Large, I will focus on three main priorities: jobs, education and transportation – which I refer to as “J-E-T”.

Jobs

We must collaborate with small businesses to ensure they receive the critical services, information, and guidance needed to help them grow and create well-paying jobs here in Montgomery County. Job creation is stagnant in our county with projections of just 1% annual growth over the next decade. To stimulate growth, we must change how our county works with business owners to promote entrepreneurship and create well-paying jobs. We can start by changing how our county departments engage with businesses for inquiries, permits and regulatory compliance. Over 70 percent of Montgomery County businesses ranked their interaction with county government as either “average” or “poor” in a recent survey conducted by the County Executive’s Economic Advisory Group. Montgomery County should be a leader in improving interactions with business by making procedures less complex and easier to understand, so that businesses can grow and employ more people. I support many of the regulations the county has in place to protect the environment, workers and our communities, but we can also improve these regulations to better engage the business community.

We must also do a better job at promoting our county as an ideal place to do business. Here in Montgomery County, we enjoy a high quality of life, great public schools and excellent public amenities. We also have one of the educated and most diverse workforces with a high number of workers who hold college degrees, many of whom speak a second language. All of these attributes are attractive to prospective companies and crucial for our county to succeed in a 21st century economy. We have a great story to tell about Montgomery County, but we need to do a better job of telling it.

Education

Our children need to be prepared for the 21st century workforce. This starts by addressing the overcrowding in schools across the county, by leasing and re-purposing unused commercial space for schools, early childhood education programs, and distance learning.  Several jurisdictions across the country (not to mention the world) have already begun using this model, including Fairfax County in Virginia, which recently completed the conversion of a vacant office building into Bailey’s Upper Elementary School. With an office vacancy rate of over 14 percent in the County, I believe there is great potential for an adaptive reuse of these spaces.

Additionally, we need to make universal pre-k a reality in Montgomery County. Publicly funded pre-k is available to only 25 percent of all 4-year-old children who live in the County. Trends have shown pre-k education has enormous positive impacts on children, especially for those who come from multi-lingual households.

Finally, we need to bring more vocational programs to MCPS to give students more exposure to different career paths such as medical science, construction, and auto repair. Vocational careers are just as vital as careers that require a four-year college degree to our local economy and communities.

Transportation

We need to reduce traffic congestion and increase transportation options by taking a comprehensive and holistic approach to our transportation infrastructure. We need to invest in all transportation modes including trains, buses, roads, bike lanes, sidewalks and everything in-between, including promoting remote work options.

We must also support and invest in transportation models that fit the needs of the individual community. The transportation needs in Clarksburg are not the same as the needs in Bethesda, which is why we must consider all available options to reduce traffic congestion. Studies have shown that every dollar spent on infrastructure boosts the economy by two dollars because such investments encourage more businesses to invest and stimulate economic development.  One of the most basic responsibilities of government is to ensure people get from point A to point B quickly and safely. I will make it a priority to fulfill that responsibility to residents across the county.

For the past decades, Montgomery County has been served well by a progressive and forward-looking County Council. However, many residents still face intractable and difficult problems, which require new perspectives and approaches in local government to address those problems.  I am committed to bring strong, engaged, and accountable leadership to the County Council and work with our communities as an equal partner for change. That’s the kind of leadership I want to bring as your next Montgomery County Councilmember, At-Large, and why I respectfully ask for your support and your vote on June 26, 2018.

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Be Careful About Going to an All-District County Council

By Adam Pagnucco.

Recently, MoCo’s political community has been thinking of changing the structure of the County Council.  Since 1990, the council has had four at-large members and five members elected by residents of districts.  One idea is to reduce or eliminate the at-large members and replace them with more district members.  Advocates of that perspective believe the districts are too large, that district members are more responsive than at-large members and that the cost of running at-large enables interest groups to play more in those elections.  We offer no opinion on any of those theories, but prior election history points to one consequence of shifting to an all-district council.

The level of political competition will almost certainly decline.

Why do we believe that will happen?  Consider recent elections.  Below is a chart showing the results of all district council elections since 1998.  Over that period, there have been 28 district council elections, 20 of which featured incumbents.  The incumbents won 17 of 20 races, an 85% win rate.  If the Republican incumbents are omitted, the remaining Democratic incumbents won 14 of 15 elections, a 93% win rate.

If that is not enough to prove the non-competitiveness of these elections, consider just two facts.  First, only one Democratic district incumbent has lost under our current structure, and that happened in 1998.  Second, of the last six contested district races, five saw the incumbent win by more than fifty points.

Meanwhile, the at-large races are much more competitive.  Since the current system was established in 1990, no group of at-large incumbents has ever run unopposed.  Three Democratic incumbents have lost – Blair Ewing (2002), Mike Subin (2006) and Duchy Trachtenberg (2010).  Even in the two elections in which all four incumbents ran for reelection (2010 and 2014), challengers still entered the race and one of them (Hans Riemer in 2010) knocked out an incumbent to win.

This year, those same trends continue unabated.  There are 25 at-large candidates (with more to come) running with three seats open.  Meanwhile, district incumbents Nancy Navarro (D-4) and Tom Hucker (D-5) have no opponents while Craig Rice (D-2) has token opposition in the primary.  Only Sidney Katz (D-3) has a serious challenger.  This disparity persists even in the presence of public financing, which was supposed to promote competition.

What explains this pattern?  After all, district races are theoretically cheaper than at-large races because they have fewer voters.  The reason is that one-seat races against incumbents are very different affairs than at-large contests.  A challenger running against an incumbent for one seat must show that the incumbent has committed a firing offense; otherwise, voters will support the candidate they know better.  These one-seat races can turn nasty as we have seen from recent MoCo Senate elections as well as the bitter fight between Council District 5 incumbent Derick Berlage and challenger Marc Elrich twenty years ago.  At-large races are seldom negative unless slates are formed to compete against each other.  (That hasn’t happened since 2002.)  At-large challenger Hans Riemer ran a model race in his 2010 win, promoting his policy agenda of progressivism and smart growth and never targeting any single incumbent for criticism.  Most candidates don’t have the stomach for negative elections when an open seat is available.  And in six of the last eight at-large races (including next year), at least one seat has been open.

Political competition is extremely valuable.  It should not be discarded lightly.  There may be good reasons to increase the number of districts, but if at-large members are completely eliminated, voters will pay the price with fewer choices and less accountability at election time.

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Random Bits, October 2017

By Adam Pagnucco.

Chris Wilhelm is Winning the Sign Wars

MCPS teacher and progressive at-large council candidate Chris Wilhelm has covered parts of Georgia Avenue and University Boulevard with his campaign signs.  (It helps to speak Spanish!)  Yes, we know signs don’t vote.  But it shows that Wilhelm is working and that’s good for perceptions of his campaign.

Who Has Momentum in Council District 1?

Council District 1, which covers Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Potomac, Poolesville and a large part of Kensington, has more regularly voting Democrats and more political contributors than any other council district by far.  It’s a prime seat.  Right now, there are nine candidates in the race and there might be more on the way.  Many good candidates in this district, like Bill Conway, Gabe Albornoz, Emily Shetty, Samir Paul and Sara Love, are instead running for council at-large or the General Assembly.  There are lots of openings to choose from these days!

So who has the momentum right now?  You could say Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez, who is the only sitting elected official who is running.  Or Reggie Oldak, who has qualified for matching funds in public financing.  Former Planning Board Member Meredith Wellington should appeal to land use voters oriented towards Marc Elrich.  Former Kensington Mayor Pete Fosselman was just endorsed by former Governor Martin O’Malley.

But we’re going with Andrew Friedson, who just had his kickoff boasting endorsements from his former employer, Comptroller Peter Franchot, along with Senators Brian Feldman (D-15) and Craig Zucker (D-14) and former long-time DNC member Susan Turnbull.  Feldman is an old hand in the Potomac portion of the district and has not been seriously challenged in 15 years.  Turnbull doesn’t usually play in local races but she has a national network in both the Democratic Party and the Jewish community.  If she is all in for Friedson, that’s a big deal.  Friedson, who is killing the field in social media, is feeling pumped up right now with good reason.

Where’s Duchy?

It’s unusual to see a large field of MoCo candidates without Duchy Trachtenberg among them.  She has a long electoral history, losing a District 1 County Council race in 2002 by a hair, winning an at-large council seat in 2006, losing reelection in 2010, briefly running for Congressional District 6 in 2012 and getting annihilated in a challenge to District 1 council incumbent Roger Berliner in 2014.  Now she has a full table of races to pick from, including council at-large, council District 1 and the District 16 General Assembly seats.  Say what you will about Duchy – and we’ve said plenty – but she can raise money, she has a network and she has campaign experience.  Is she done or is she just waiting to file at the last minute, as she has done before?

Can Greenberger’s Strategy Work?

Former County Council spokesman Neil Greenberger is torching his old bosses, saying they treat voters like ATMs and guaranteeing that if he is elected, there will be no property tax hikes.  This is a new strategy for a Democratic council candidate made possible by the 2008 passage of the Ficker amendment, which requires votes from all nine Council Members to go over the property tax charter limit.  Furthermore, it’s an unusual strategy from a historical perspective.  Most council candidates over the last few decades have emphasized schools, transportation, development (pro or con) and a handful of other left-leaning issues but have not been explicitly anti-tax.  That sentiment has mostly come from Republicans.

But two things have changed in Greenberger’s favor.  First, the passage of term limits was rooted partly in opposition to last year’s 9% property tax hike.  But it wasn’t just the increase alone that annoyed residents.  Unlike the 2010 energy tax hike, last year’s property tax increase was not driven by the catastrophic effects of a recession, but was a policy choice by the council that could easily have been much lower.  Voters didn’t see the tax hike as truly necessary, which increased their frustration with it.

Second, the number of votes needed to win an at-large seat could be much lower in this cycle than in the past.  Over the last four cycles, at-large candidates have needed around 40,000 votes to have a shot at victory.  (Incumbent Blair Ewing far exceeded that total in 2002 and still lost.)

That number may no longer hold.  No one knows what the turnout will be next year; informed observers disagree about that.  But the candidate field will be two to three times larger than in any other recent cycle and only one incumbent is running.  That could mean a very fractured electorate yielding a low win threshold and tight margins.  That favors candidates with medium-sized but intense bases, whether geographic, demographic or ideological.  In Greenberger’s case, if 100,000 Democrats vote, and 30,000 of them are sick of tax hikes, and Greenberger can actually communicate with them, he could win.  And so could anyone else who can put together 30,000 votes.

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Greenberger Guarantees No Property Tax Hikes

By Adam Pagnucco.

Former County Council spokesman Neil Greenberger, who is running for an at-large seat, has released a campaign video guaranteeing that if he is elected, there will be no property tax hikes in the next term.  Greenberger cites a section of the Montgomery County charter that prevents property tax hikes above the rate of inflation unless all nine Council Members vote to do so.  If only one member votes no, the tax hike would fail.  The nine vote requirement is the result of a ballot question submitted by Robin Ficker which was approved by voters in 2008.

While other at-large candidates have been skeptical of further tax hikes, none of them so far have taken as hard a line against them as Greenberger.

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At-Large Candidate’s Proposal Breaks Campaign Finance Laws

By Adam Pagnucco.

Council At-Large candidate Brandy Brooks, who is participating in MoCo’s public financing system, would like to help natural disaster victims.  That’s a laudable goal.  But she is proposing to spend campaign contributions to do so.  The problem is that’s illegal under state and county campaign finance laws.

On her website and on Facebook, Brooks promotes an initiative that she calls “Power 100,” in which she invites 100 contributors to donate a combined $2,500 to her campaign, half of which would be paid out to a number of charities helping natural disaster victims.  The charities include organizations helping victims of Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, a mudslide in Sierra Leone and floods in South Asia.

Brooks supporter Ed Fischman went a step further in a posting on the Our Revolution in Montgomery County Facebook page, asserting that public matching funds would be used for disaster relief.  To be fair, it’s unclear whether Fischman speaks for Brooks and Brooks has not yet qualified for public matching funds.

State and county campaign finance laws prohibit these kinds of expenditures.  According to the State Board of Elections’ Summary Guide, there must be a nexus between campaign account expenditures and the promotion of a candidate’s campaign for those expenditures to be legal.  The guide specifically addresses charitable contributions, stating:

Generally, campaign funds may not be used solely for charitable purposes. Maryland law requires campaign funds to be used for the purpose of supporting or opposing a candidate, question, or political committee. Furthermore, it is important to keep in mind that contributors give to campaign committees for one important reason – they want to support the committee’s candidate, question, or political party. When campaign funds are spent for a non-campaign related purpose, it frustrates the intent of the contributor.

However, there are instances when a charitable donation is permissible because it is for a campaign purpose. For example, a candidate may permissibly use campaign funds to attend a charitable event since attending the event increases the candidate’s visibility and allows the candidate to network with potential voters and donors.

ง 13-247 of state election law does allow certain kinds of charitable contributions to be made by accounts that are closing and liquidating their assets, a case that clearly does not apply to Brooks.

Additionally, Montgomery County’s public campaign financing law states, “A participating candidate may only use the eligible contributions and the matching public contribution for a primary or general election for expenses incurred for the election.”  This statement is repeated in the county’s summary of the law.  No one could construe helping disaster relief victims as a primary or general election expense.  It’s noteworthy that the county’s language applies not just to public funds but also to individual contributions made under the public financing program.

Your author really hated to write this blog post but it had to be done.  Generally speaking, when we have examined campaign finance issues in the past, we have sometimes seen behavior that may not be ethical but is legal.  This case is the opposite: what Brooks is doing comes from the best of intentions but does not comply with the law.  Brooks is free to discuss the plight of disaster victims all she wants.  She could also organize a private fundraiser for victims separate from her campaign account.  But if she goes ahead and uses her campaign funds for disaster relief contributions, she will risk sanctions from the state, the county or both.

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Updated: Preliminary Fundraising Totals in Public Campaign Financing, September 2017

By Adam Pagnucco.

This morning, we posted preliminary fundraising totals for candidates in public financing.  But one of those reports was wrong because of a problem with the State Board of Elections’ processing software.  This post contains updated information.

Shortly after our original post, we received the following communication from Council At-Large candidate Hoan Dang’s campaign.

Hi Adam, this is Jonathon Rowland, campaign manager for Hoan Dang.  Thank you for the article this morning.  I just want to correct the amount stated.  When we filed with the Board of Elections, our report was duplicated because of a glitch in the system giving us double the amount of donations.  We have been in contact with the Board of Elections since Monday to resolve this issue.  The actual amount of donations is 316.

When your author called Rowland for more details, he said that the Dang campaign found the error first and asked the board to correct it.  Board staff acknowledged the mistake and said that they were working with their IT developer to fix it going forward.  No public funds were ever distributed before the Dang campaign caught the mistake.

Including information provided by Dang’s campaign today, here is the updated comparison of the five campaigns who have applied for public financing.

Dang is not the leader in public financing.  George Leventhal, who is running for Executive, is the overall leader in qualifying contributors and receipts.  (Executive candidates get higher match rates than council candidates.)  Among the council candidates, incumbent Hans Riemer leads in qualifying contributors and Bill Conway leads in matching funds.  This should not discount a strong performance by Dang, whose financial numbers are not terribly different from Riemer’s.

Going forward, we hope the state prevents the kinds of mistakes that affected Dang’s campaign.  In the initial glitchy filing, Dang supposedly requested $148,328 in public matching funds.  (Again, the IT glitch was not Dang’s fault.)  In the updated filing, Dang requested $74,144 in public matching funds.  That’s a $74,184 difference.  If Dang had not caught the mistake, could that difference have conceivably been paid out?  There’s no evidence available on that point.  But for the good of public confidence in the county’s public financing system, we hope such a mistake never happens.

On a different issue, we asked what happened to Council Member Marc Elrich’s filing for public matching funds in our original post.  Elrich said he had enough contributors to qualify back in June but has not filed yet.  When asked about it on Leventhal surrogate Saqib Ali’s Facebook page, Elrich said his delay in filing was related to a payment his campaign had made to the county party, which was subsequently ruled to not be in compliance with public financing requirements.  We reprint Elrich’s statement below.

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Preliminary Fundraising Totals in Public Campaign Financing, September 2017

By Adam Pagnucco.

Correction: The numbers for Hoan Dang in this post are inaccurate.  For updated numbers on Dang and a response by Marc Elrich, please visit our updated post.

One of the virtues of public campaign financing is the rapid release of financial reports for participating candidates.  That’s right, folks – for this group of candidates, there is no need to wait until January to see fundraising numbers.  That’s because when they qualify for public matching funds and request them from the state, their financial reports are released almost immediately.  This is terrific for all data junkies like your author as well as inquiring minds among the readers!

Below is a summary for the five candidates who have applied to receive matching funds from the state.  Bear in mind the following characteristics of the data.  First, the number of qualifying contributors means the number of contributors who live in Montgomery County.  Non-residents can contribute up to $150 each but the state will not authorize matching funds for them.  Second, the individual contribution amounts are the basis on which the state determines how much in public matching funds will be released.  Third, the date of cash balance is important because it varies depending on when the applications were sent in.  That is unlike the regular reporting dates on which financial positions are summarized at the same time for all candidates.  And fourth, for those candidates who have only filed once (which includes everyone except George Leventhal), the cash balances do not include public funds from the state.  To estimate the cash positions of those candidates, the cash balance should be added to the public matching funds they requested.

What do we make of this?

1.  Let’s start with the obvious: there are a lot of small checks out there!  While many contributors are probably donating to more than one of these five campaigns, it’s not a stretch to say that close to a thousand people will have contributed by some point in the near future.  It’s hard to make comparisons with the past without exquisitely detailed research to back it up (anyone want to pay us for that?) but our hunch is that this is a larger early donor pool than in prior cycles.

2.  The big story here is Council At-Large candidate Hoan Dang.  At-Large Council Members George Leventhal (who is running for Executive) and Hans Riemer (the only incumbent running for reelection) have a combined 22 years of representing the whole county.  But Dang had more in-county contributors than either one of them!  How does that happen?  Dang ran for Delegate in District 19 in 2010.  He was financially competitive, raising $103,418, but he finished fifth out of six candidates.  There was no reason going into this race to believe that Dang would receive more grassroots financial support than Leventhal or Riemer.  But so far, he has.

3.  Dang is not the only story.  Look at first-time candidate Bill Conway, who collected more private funds than Riemer primarily by having a larger average contribution.  In most elections, challengers struggle to be financially competitive with incumbents.  But the early performances of Conway and Dang relative to Riemer suggest that, at least among publicly-financed candidates, some or all of that gap may be closed.  Our hunch is that a group of at-large candidates will all hit the public matching funds cap of $250,000 and therefore have similar budgets heading into mail season.  The big question will then become how those totals compare to what candidates in the traditional system, like Marilyn Balcombe, Charlie Barkley, Ashwani Jain and Cherri Branson, will raise.

4.  Where is Marc Elrich?  The three-term at-large Council Member and Executive candidate announced that he had qualified for matching funds back in June at roughly the same time that Leventhal and Riemer said the same.  Riemer followed up by filing for matching funds and Leventhal did it twice.  Why hasn’t Elrich filed more than two months after his announcement?  One suspects that the bewildering paperwork requirements of public financing are responsible for the delay, but political types are starting to chatter about it.

That’s all for now.  Candidates, keep those reports coming in so your favorite blog has more material for the readers!

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First Impressions, Part Four

By Adam Pagnucco.

Seth Grimes, Takoma Park

Former Takoma Park City Council Member Seth Grimes’s edge is his experience.  Other than incumbent Hans Riemer and Delegate Charles Barkley (D-39), Grimes is the only candidate in the field who has served in elected office so far.  During his two terms in office (2011-2015), Grimes passed legislation allowing 16-year-olds to vote in municipal elections as well as banning environmentally harmful pesticides and polystyrene containers.  The latter two bills were models for similar county legislation.  He also pushed for better management practices in the city both before and after he started serving on the council.

In person, Grimes comes across as studious and tremendously substantive.  Those qualities are present in such abundance that he can struggle to convey ideas in layman’s terms.  He can go into significant detail on his favorite subjects, including affordable housing, food security, reducing poverty and municipal tax duplication.  On many other subjects, Grimes can relate them to his work in the city.  As a provider of many more services than a lot of Maryland municipalities (including a full service police department), the city provides a good laboratory for understanding the functions and problems of county government.

One major plus for your author is that Grimes is a blogger.  (Folks, we bloggers are sorely misunderstood and must stick together in the face of a sometimes unforgiving world!)  His blog shows a person who is fact-oriented, careful, versed in policy and extremely well informed.  It’s obvious that he would be ready to serve on the County Council from day one.  That fact alone makes him worthy of consideration for your vote.

Ashwani Jain, Potomac

Former Obama administration official Ashwani Jain has an inspiring story.  He is a first generation American whose father came here from India years ago with no connections and built a thriving family jewelry business.  He is also a cancer survivor, having contracted the disease at age 13 and undergone chemotherapy.  Jain understands the American dream as well as personal tragedy.  Lots of people will relate to him.

Jain’s claim to fame is his association with President Obama, dating from his volunteering for him ten years ago and ultimately culminating in positions at the White House and the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services and Housing and Urban Development.  He is part of the local Obama network that also includes Council Member Hans Riemer, Delegate Marc Korman, former Maryland Obama Director Jason Waskey, former Delegate candidate Kyle Lierman, former MCDCC Member Oscar Ramirez and fellow at-large council candidate Will Jawando.  But Jain is not just a national-level person – he is also a native of the county and has lived in several parts of it, both east and west.  That gives him a gut-level knowledge of the county that most transplants don’t have.

Jain’s policy views on land use and budgetary issues are not well developed, though he does favor transit projects like the Purple Line and the BRT system, he supports a $15 minimum wage, he believes the county should be a sanctuary jurisdiction and he emphasizes the need for affordable housing.  He also thinks the county should consider ending its liquor monopoly.  But perhaps the biggest reason why voters will like him in addition to his Obama experience is his appealing personality.  Simply put, it is virtually impossible to dislike him.  That’s a major asset for any politician.  Local activists don’t know him yet, but he could really surprise people before this race is over.

That’s it for now, folks.  As we meet more candidates, we may renew this series in the future!

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First Impressions, Part Three

By Adam Pagnucco.

Danielle Meitiv, Silver Spring

Danielle Meitiv is from Queens.  You can hear it in her voice.  But she is also quintessentially MoCo.  Our county is full of people who moved here from somewhere else and are principally concerned with national or international issues.  Some keep up with local issues and vote regularly, but many others have little idea who their state or county elected officials are.  Meitiv was once in the former group.  But then she had a Great Awakening.

We are of course referring to Meitiv’s international fame as the Free Range Mom, during which she battled – and defeated – MoCo’s Child Protective Services (CPS).  Nearly everyone in the county has heard the story of how CPS detained Meitiv’s children for walking alone in public and how her family fought back.  For Meitiv, the incident drove home the importance of local government and the unequal resources possessed by residents who have to deal with its bad side.  It left a permanent mark on a person who was once little different from so many other MoCo voters.

In many ways, Meitiv is a conventional county liberal.  The issues she brings up – BRT, walkable neighborhoods, the Purple Line, civil rights, climate change – are mostly the same as the other at-large candidates.  But Meitiv adds something else: her calls for greater transparency and responsiveness by county government based on her own searing experience with CPS.  Few voters have gone through what she did, but virtually everyone has a story to tell of unresponsive bureaucracy and/or unresponsive elected officials.  That plus Meitiv’s appealing combination of passion and intelligence make her relatable and brings potential to her run for office.

Chris Wilhelm, Chevy Chase

MoCo has a reputation as the most progressive county in Maryland.  But Chris Wilhelm doesn’t think we are progressive enough.  He writes on his website, “Yes, the biggest threat to our progressive priorities is coming from the current occupant of the White House and Republicans in Congress.  But too many leaders in our County and Party act in ways that go against the progressive agenda that residents are demanding.”

Wilhelm sees many local issues as reflections of national issues.  Senator Bernie Sanders, whom Wilhelm admires, made free college a key element of his platform.  Wilhelm thinks the state and the county should do everything they can to make Montgomery College free for county residents.  After all, if deep-red Garrett County is doing it, why can’t we?  He supports Roger Berliner’s fossil fuel divestment bill because he sees it as a way for MoCo to contribute to a nationwide movement towards clean energy.  He deplores corporate welfare for big companies and favors local support for small businesses both across the country and here at home.  And his demand that all county candidates enroll in public financing is rooted in a belief that corporate campaign money is a problem both nationally and locally.

Wilhelm has two advantages over his competitors.  First, he is an ESOL teacher in MCPS.  He can speak in very detailed, compelling terms about the school system – always a huge issue in local races – and the things it can do to improve.  Second, he has more campaign experience than most of his rivals, having worked in the field for Barack Obama (2008) and David Moon (2014).  The principles of how to run an effective campaign are not new to him.

Chris Wilhelm is clearly positioning himself in the most liberal part of the field.  If you want a serious, thoughtful progressive who will help move the council to the left, you should give him a close look.

We will conclude in Part Four.

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First Impressions, Part Two

By Adam Pagnucco.

Bill Conway, Potomac

Many readers have encountered Diana Conway, one of MoCo’s most tenacious and effective environmental activists.  As she is someone who has long been involved in local elections, your author had long assumed that a Conway might someday appear on the ballot.  Well, we were half-right – the Conway who is running is her husband, Bill.

Bill Conway is a recently retired energy lawyer who is a nationally recognized expert on the electric power industry.  He once worked as a U.S. Senate staffer and played a key role in designing wholesale electricity deregulation in the early 1990s.  He’s a heavy hitter and with a profile like that, one might assume that Conway would come across as a know-it-all.  But then you meet him.

Conway’s intelligence is as obvious as his immense likability.  But his greatest asset is his curiosity.  Your author has interviewed dozens of candidates over the years.  Most of them are reluctant to admit ignorance on anything for fear of coming across as unready for elected service.  Not Conway.  While he certainly has plenty of knowledge and opinions – he is just as animated in discussing social justice as he is about the need to grow the economy – he is comfortable enough in his own skin to ask questions.  LOTS of questions.  Your author has never met a candidate who took such deep dives on policy issues right off the bat – for HOURS – as Conway.

Intellectual curiosity may be the single most underrated trait in great elected officials.  Their job is to deal with a tremendous variety of issues that demand attention and expertise, often many in the same day.  The best of them learn quickly and love to learn.  Bill Conway has a lot going for him but he has that trait in spades.  It will serve him and his constituents well if he gets elected.

PS – Right now, no at-large candidate is working harder than Conway on the campaign trail.  Here’s the proof.

Gabe Albornoz, Kensington

Imagine working your way up the ladder quickly and landing a dream job.  Everything is great, yeah?  And then less than two years later, the cuts begin.  By the time it’s all over, your budget is down 23% and your employees’ work years are down 22%.  Is it still a dream job?

Gabe Albornoz would say yes even though that actually happened to him.  As the county’s Director of Recreation, his department took those cuts between Fiscal Years 2008 and 2012, some of the biggest cuts to any part of the government.  Albornoz had to look people in the eye and let them go, something almost all managers hate to do.  But he got through it by concentrating reductions in force at the middle management level and empowering front-line employees to make more decisions.  No recreation centers were closed and Albornoz recruited non-profits and community groups to help fill the gap.  That’s one reason why Albornoz is considered one of the best managers in county government.

But that’s not all he is.  Albornoz is also the former Chair of the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee and steered the party through some difficult conflicts with labor.  Many new candidates have to spend time building relationships with players across the county – and it’s a BIG county.  Albornoz already has those relationships – with elected officials, civic associations, community groups, faith groups and everyone else he has worked with in county government over the last decade.  Unusually, he seems to be almost devoid of enemies.  (Explain how you do that to this blog author, Gabe!)  It’s a large network that could pay big dividends.

The knock on many people in legislative positions is that they know nothing about running a government, or a large organization of any kind.  No one could say that about Gabe Albornoz.  He is among the best prepared people to ever run for Montgomery County Council.

More to come in Part Three.

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