Category Archives: Council At-Large

A Troublesome Situation

By Adam Pagnucco.

By running for an at-large County Council seat and retaining his position as the council’s spokesman, Neil Greenberger is creating a troublesome situation for both the council and the public.  That situation is rooted in the significant conflicts that Greenberger will now have between his two roles.

As we have previously written, the position of spokesperson for an elected official – or in Greenberger’s case, nine of them – is a position of trust.  Elected officials must believe that their communications personnel will represent their positions and actions fairly towards members of the public, who after all will determine if those officials are reelected.  That’s hard to believe when the spokesperson is a candidate who is running for the same office held by the elected officials he is supposed to represent.  In at least one case – incumbent Council Member Hans Riemer – Greenberger is running in the exact same contest.  (Disclosure: your author is Riemer’s former Chief of Staff and regularly worked with Greenberger.)  That means Greenberger is supposed to be trusted to represent Riemer fairly during his day job while he could very well criticize him or his positions on the campaign trail after hours.  The same situation could apply to District 5 Council Member Tom Hucker, who may run at-large.

This is not a hypothetical scenario.  Greenberger is already running against last year’s tax hikes, telling MCM, “This county cannot take another property tax hike… I will guarantee no budget in the four years I’m in office will exceed the charter limit. That’s a guarantee.”  He also told the Sentinel, “The number one thing is, no matter what their incomes, people are still feeling the pain of the big tax increases – actually the two tax increases of last year… And I don’t think they need any more tax increases in the next four years.”  Your author has some sympathy for Greenberger’s opinions.  But the fact is that all nine of the Council Members Greenberger represents in his day job voted for the tax hikes and those who are running again will be defending them on the campaign trail.  And yet their own spokesman is contradicting them.

There is more.  Greenberger runs the council side of the county government’s cable channel, County Cable Montgomery (CCM).  He even hosts his own county TV show.  He is also a liaison between the council and Montgomery Community Media (MCM), a non-profit that covers the county and receives county funding.  In those capacities, Greenberger will be in a position to influence the coverage his opponents – including those who employ him – receive.  It’s a huge conflict.  But Greenberger ignores that.  According to the Sentinel, “Greenberger said he plans to continue to work his job while he campaigns for County Council, saying there is not a conflict of interest because his job is not political nor is he required by law to quit.”  That’s a questionable contention at best.  Many communications from elected officials to the public have a political dimension to them.  Elected officials who issue communications making themselves look bad may not be elected for long!

Neil Greenberger interviews one of his nine employers – and future political rival – Hans Riemer on his county television show in 2011.

The natural reaction of elected officials who face the prospect of their own spokesperson publicly critiquing them is to stop using the spokesperson altogether.  Think about it – who on Earth would want to employ a critic or outright opponent to write press releases about them?  Here’s where the situation becomes problematic for taxpayers.  Greenberger was paid $148,091 in 2016.  If Council Members stop going through him and start relying exclusively on their own personal staff for communications, there is a possibility that his ability to perform his day job would be impaired.

These are not garden-variety conflicts, folks.  Greenberger’s compensation as well as the media outlets he influences directly and indirectly are publicly funded.  That leads us to ask what safeguards will be put in place to prevent any potential use of public resources to benefit a specific candidate, especially if it comes at the expense of others.

Greenberger has as much right to run for office as anyone else.  He is also a merit staffer and can’t be fired for political activity after hours.  But given the above facts, Greenberger should request a transfer to a less politically sensitive position and the job of council spokesperson should be converted to an at-will appointment.  Should he fail to act accordingly, voters should consider his sense of judgment on this issue when they decide how to cast their votes.

Share

Two Tiers in the At-Large Council Race, Part Two

By Adam Pagnucco.

In Part One, we spotlighted five losing candidates who went on to be elected to multiple terms on the Montgomery County Council.  That illustrates a key point: candidates with electoral experience often come back stronger in future races, even if they lose their first elections.  The top tier of potential at-large council candidates includes the following people who have earned lots of votes in prior races for council and the General Assembly and presumably know how to earn them in the future.

Hans Riemer

49,932 votes in the 2014 at-large primary, third place

Your author admits to being partial to Riemer as a former member of his staff.  That said, he is the only incumbent in the race as his three current colleagues have been tossed out by term limits.  Back in 2010, we ran a series on why MoCo incumbents lose and identified four reasons: they were Republicans, they were lazy, they made lots of enemies (especially in their districts) and they had great challengers.  Riemer is not a Republican, he’s not lazy and he has no more enemies than most other local politicians.  Great challengers are rare, and because Riemer is the only incumbent running for one of four seats, four great challengers would have to get in to knock him out.  That’s just not going to happen.  The only certainty in this race is that Riemer will be reelected.

Beth Daly

39,642 votes in the 2014 at-large primary, fifth place

Dickerson activist Beth Daly ran a solid at-large campaign in 2014.  Her support crossed over with incumbent Marc Elrich and she got many valuable endorsements from the labor and environmental communities.  Daly’s problem had less to do with her and more to do with the field as she was running against four incumbents.  So did Riemer in 2010, but he benefited from incumbent Duchy Trachtenberg’s blowing up her relationships with labor and sitting on a huge unspent campaign balance.  None of the 2014 incumbents committed mistakes of that magnitude, and Daly, despite all the things she did right, could not break through.  We don’t know if she has any interest in running again, but if she does, she would be a strong contender in a wide open race.

Tom Hucker

7,667 votes in the 2014 District 5 primary, winner

If Hucker stays in District 5, he will be defending a safe seat.  Pay no attention to his close victory in 2014; Hucker and his super-duper staff led by MCDCC Chair Dave Kunes have locked down the district.  But there are rumors that Hucker could run at-large.  If he does, he would be formidable.  Hucker has a true-blue progressive voting record in both Rockville and Annapolis, and with more than 20 years of political experience, he knows how to win.  Labor and the environmentalists will be there for him, too.  Note: it’s misleading to compare the vote totals of Hucker and his 2014 opponent, Evan Glass, to the other candidates on this list.  Hucker and Glass ran in a vote-for-one race whereas most of the others ran in multiple-vote races.

Evan Glass

7,445 votes in the 2014 District 5 primary, second place

Former journalist and uber-activist Evan Glass nearly shocked the world by coming close to beating heavy favorite Hucker in 2014.  Since then, he has kept busy by running youth film non-profit Gandhi Brigade and serving on Committee for Montgomery’s board.  He has well-wishers in many parts of the county’s political community and could be a consensus candidate in whatever election he enters.  It’s important to note that Glass and Hucker won’t be in the same race.  One will run in District 5 and the other will run at-large.  Our prediction: there is a strong possibility that the two former rivals will be council colleagues in December 2018.

Will Jawando

5,620 votes in the 2014 Legislative District 20 primary, fourth place

5,634 votes in MoCo in the 2016 Congressional District 8 primary, fifth place

Former Obama aide Will Jawando is the kind of candidate you could fall in love with.  He’s handsome, well-spoken and ridiculously charismatic.  He’s also good at raising money.  But after running strong for a District 20 House seat in 2014, he inexplicably ran for Congress in 2016.  Our prediction is that Delegate Sheila Hixson, who just gave up a committee chair she held for more than twenty years, will retire and Jawando will run for her seat.  But if Jawando runs for council at-large instead, he will get more than his fair share of votes.

Charles Barkley

4,896 votes in the 2014 Legislative District 39 primary, first place

Note: the above race had no challengers

District 39 Delegate Charles Barkley was first elected in 1998 as part of a slate of Democrats who took out three Republican Delegates.  He has coasted to victory in the district ever since.  Something of a maverick in Annapolis, Barkley has told Bethesda Magazine that he will likely be running for council at-large.  Barkley’s problems are that he has never run a modern campaign including social media and blast email and his district has the smallest number of regular Democratic voters of any legislative district in the county.  But he reported a $205,478 campaign account balance in January 2017, and if he doesn’t enroll in public financing, he can spend every cent of that in a race for council.

That’s the top tier.  The second tier is everyone else.  There are some noteworthy candidates stepping forward.  Chris Wilhelm is a progressive MCPS teacher who has worked for Delegate David Moon (D-20) and is off to a fast start.  Marilyn Balcombe, President/CEO of the Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce, is well-known in the business community and is smart and pragmatic.  School board members Rebecca Smondrowski and Jill Ortman-Fouse have not publicly said they’re interested in the council – yet – but both of them ran against MCEA-endorsed opponents and won.  Would any of them, or any of the many other people thinking about running, be top-notch candidates?  There’s no way to tell right now.  But given the number of at-large openings and the high probability that some of the top-tier people won’t get in, at least one new candidate will probably win.

Share

Two Tiers in the At-Large Council Race, Part One

By Adam Pagnucco.

The race for Montgomery County Executive is starting to draw some attention from the press, but relatively little has been written about the upcoming election for the County Council’s four at-large seats.  That’s too bad considering the historic nature of the race.  The council has never had three open at-large seats since its current structure was created in 1990, but it does now thanks to term limits.  Combined with the open District 1 seat, the council will have four openings in 2018.  Whoever wins those seats, along with the next County Executive, will be running the county for as long as the next twelve years.

We are fourteen months out from the election and the race is just now beginning to form, but we are reasonably sure of one thing: candidates who have run before, even if they lost (respectably), will have an advantage over those who have not.  That’s because of two reasons.  First, they have electoral experience and don’t have the often-steep learning curve of brand-new candidates.  Second, they will have leftover support, relationships and name recognition from their prior races.  Why do we emphasize this?  MoCo electoral history is full of candidates who lost and later came back to win.  Consider just a few examples.

Steve Silverman

Silver Spring attorney Steve Silverman took on all three incumbent District 20 Delegates in 1994 and lost by more than 2,000 votes.  But he captured a council at-large seat four years later and finished first for reelection in 2002.  Silverman, as shrewd and canny as they come, is still a player in county politics as a co-founder of the advocacy group Empower Montgomery and as a successful lobbyist.

A 1994 Silverman mailer about school construction.  Some things never change.

Phil Andrews

Former Common Cause of Maryland Executive Director Phil Andrews ran for an at-large council seat in 1994 emphasizing his work on curbing lobbyists and big campaign donors.  He finished sixth, but came back four years later to knock out District 3 incumbent Bill Hanna.  Andrews would go on to serve four terms on the council.

A 1994 Andrews mailer.  Reading his comments on his time at Common Cause, it is no surprise that he would create the county’s public campaign financing system twenty years later.

Roger Berliner

Energy sector lawyer Roger Berliner ran in the 2000 District 1 special election primary and lost to Pat Baptiste, who subsequently was defeated by Republican Howie Denis for the seat.  Berliner came back six years later to beat Denis and has represented the district ever since.

A Berliner mailer from 2000.  He has much better glasses now!

Hans Riemer

Former Rock the Vote political director Hans Riemer lost a 2006 open seat race in District 5 to school board member Valerie Ervin.  Four years later, Riemer finished second in the at-large race and is the only incumbent eligible to run again.

Riemer vows to build the Purple Line in 2006 or die trying.  For the sake of his wife and two kids, we hope the project is allowed to proceed!

Marc Elrich

Former MCPS teacher and Takoma Park City Council Member Marc Elrich is the patron saint of persistent candidates.  Elrich ran four straight times for County Council before being elected at-large in 2006 and has finished first in the last two elections.  Elrich’s longevity, tenacity and consistency of message will make him a formidable candidate for Executive.

An Elrich mailer from 1994.  What did we say about things never changing?

We love history like many Seventh State readers.  But what does this have to do with 2018?  We’ll explore that in Part Two.

Share