Three of these stories were leftovers from the election and dominated the first week. Of the rest, two of the top three relate to whether and how MCPS will reopen – a huge issue that has yet to be resolved. Parents may disagree on exactly what MCPS should do, but all of us (I’m one of them!) are intensely interested in the outcome.
Guest blog by Delegate Eric Luedtke (District 14).
It should not be controversial to say that governments have a responsibility to address the needs of all of their constituents. I appreciate Adam’s thoughts and writing, and how much he relishes the role of provocateur, though I take issue with his characterization of my recent op-ed in Bethesda Beat as blasting county government. I think it’s more along the lines of constructive criticism among friends.
While the analysis of recent electoral outcomes in Montgomery County’s upcounty and downcounty regions are interesting to those of us who follow county politics closely, the average resident of the county is much more interested in having problems in their communities addressed. I believe that much of the support for Question D was driven by a feeling that upcounty does not get its fair share of attention from county government. I should add, by the way, that a similar feeling is prevalent in east county as well.
Of course, there are those in county government who take issue with that suggestion. I recall, for example, a pair of conversations I had with one former member of the County Council. In one conversation, I was told that the commercial blight at the Burtonsville Crossing shopping center was happening because, and I quote, “Burtonsville is not Bethesda,” and that the county shouldn’t waste money trying to help Burtonsville address the profound problem of a decaying town center. In another conversation with the same person, I was upbraided for suggesting that the county didn’t pay enough attention to Burtonsville. The irony was astounding.
I’ve had folks in county government suggest that this perspective is wrong, that residents of every community in the county feel that problems in their particular community are under-addressed. Perhaps. But, again, as just an example, I’ve been working on the Burtonsville crossing issue for more than a decade now, since before I was elected, and with the notable exception of Councilman Hucker, I’ve never seen county government writ large act on it with any kind of urgency. It’s been an afterthought, if that.
If folks in county government want to demonstrate that my critique is off base, they can do so relatively easily.
If the county can create significant incentives for new development around downcounty metro stations, why can’t they do so to incent redevelopment at Burtonsville crossing? Or, alternatively, after a decade of blight, why can’t the county find a way to fine the property owner for failing to maintain the property as a viable commercial site? Or use eminent domain to put the property to a use that will actually benefit Burtonsville residents?
If complaints that the county doesn’t pay enough attention to agriculture are wrong, will the next county budget include the miniscule amount of money necessary to reopen the venison donation facility in Laytonsville? Will it include a commitment of $1 million a year from the general fund for agricultural land preservation?
If concerns that upcounty transportation isn’t enough of a priority are misplaced, will the 97/28 interchange have a higher priority in the next county transportation priorities letter? Will the county commit to funding more bicycle and pedestrian improvements around upcounty schools, such as a better sidewalk network in Damascus so kids can get to Damascus High School and Baker Middle School more easily?
Most residents of the county don’t follow the precinct results of elections. They just want the potholes filled, the congestion addressed, the schools funded, and they want to feel like they have a chance to be heard. The feeling that their communities weren’t being heard drove a lot of well meaning people to support Question D. Those of us in elected office can choose to recognize that concern, and do something about it. Or, we can simply ignore it, pretend like the vote for Question C solved the problem, and move on. But if the latter is the reaction, then we will almost certainly see more Question D’s in the future. I should amend my earlier op-ed. Representation matters, in every corner of the county. And when it’s not provided, residents will demand it, one way or the other.
Delegate Eric Luedtke is the House Majority Leader and has represented District 14 since 2011.
It’s not every day that you see a senior member of MoCo’s state delegation blast the county government, but Delegate Eric Luedtke (D-14) recently did so. In an essay published in Bethesda Beat, Luedtke opined, “The lesson of Question D is that representation matters” and repeatedly criticized county leaders for ignoring his district, which hugs the Howard County border.
Luedtke wrote, “Bluntly, due to the political geography of the county, countywide elected officials in particular don’t need to spend much time in the upper reaches of the county to get re-elected. The vast majority of the votes in the Democratic primary are downcounty votes.”
Is that true?
Former county council candidate (and co-chair of the ballot issue committee that opposed nine districts) Marilyn Balcombe has written about low upcounty turnout in the 2018 primary on Seventh State. Her conclusion was, “The Upcounty doesn’t vote and nobody cares.” Let’s reexamine that premise and also ask another question: did upcounty vote differently than downcounty in the council at-large race?
First, let’s set our definitions. For the sake of this analysis, I am defining downcounty as the “Democratic Crescent,” a term I coined for precincts located in Takoma Park, Silver Spring (inside the Beltway), Chevy Chase, Kensington, Bethesda and Cabin John. This area was responsible for sending Jamie Raskin to Congress in the fiercely contested 2016 primary. I am defining upcounty as precincts located in Brookeville, Clarksburg, Damascus, Dickerson, Gaithersburg, Germantown, Laytonsville, Montgomery Village, Olney, Poolesville, Sandy Spring and Washington Grove, which also include less populated areas nearby (like Ashton, Barnesville, Boyds and Spencerville). The rest of the county is here referred to – artfully – as “everywhere else.”
Precinct results are reported by the State Board of Elections for election day voting. (Precinct data excludes other voting modes.) In the 2018 Democratic primary, 301,208 votes were cast on election day in the council at-large race. Each voter can vote for up to four candidates since there are four at-large seats. Here is the distribution of council at-large votes by broad region along with U.S. Census Bureau population estimates for 2014-2018.
Roughly speaking, the crescent accounted for a quarter of the county’s population but cast a third of the votes in the council at-large Democratic primary. The upcounty was the reverse – it accounted for a third of the county’s population but cast a quarter of the votes. So downcounty didn’t account for a majority of the votes as Luedtke said, but it accounted for a disproportionate number of them for two reasons: a higher than average share of its voters are Democrats, and downcounty Democrats turned out at a higher than average rate as Balcombe wrote.
This might not matter much except for one thing: do downcounty Democrats vote for different candidates than upcounty Democrats? Here is where it gets interesting. The table below shows the rank order of finish for council at-large candidates among upcounty Democrats only.
Hans Riemer (the only incumbent) and Will Jawando finished first and second in the overall vote. But if the decision was made by upcounty, Marilyn Balcombe (who finished fifth overall) and Brandy Brooks (who finished seventh) would also have been elected. The result for Balcombe, who lives in Germantown, is unsurprising. However, Brooks is a Democratic Socialist who lived in Wheaton at the time. That shows how progressive upcounty Democrats, who also elected DSA member Gabe Acevero to the House of Delegates, can be. Gabe Albornoz and Evan Glass, who were both elected, finished seventh and eighth in upcounty respectively.
The table below shows how the Democratic Crescent voted.
Not only did the crescent pick all four at-large winners, it picked them in their overall order of finish. The crescent also voted for Balcombe, Brooks and Chris Wilhelm in their overall order of finish. At least in the 2018 election, the pattern established by downcounty voters applied very closely to the total result.
Now let’s look at where each of the top ten at-large candidates drew their votes from.
The four candidates with the highest percentage of their votes coming from the crescent – Riemer, Jawando, Glass and Albornoz – were the ones who got elected. In fact, each of these four received at least twice as many votes from the crescent as they did from upcounty. Candidates who received a quarter or more of their votes from upcounty (Balcombe, Wilhelm, Brooks and Ashwani Jain) did not win.
Just as in 2004, MoCo voters chose to reject the abolition of the at-large council seats this year. Given the fact that these seats will remain on the ballot, and given the election results above, upcounty voters must increase their turnout to get any respect from county government. If they don’t, the issues described by Delegate Luedtke in his column will continue.
In prior posts, I have noted support of the Nine Districts charter amendment by Republicans, developers and unions. But a lot more people beyond those groups would like to have nine council districts and I recently asked them why. Here are a few comments from supporters I received with names removed to protect their identities. I am not saying that they are necessarily right, but in order to understand Nine Districts, you have to understand sentiments like these.
Potomac resident: I support 9 Districts because I don’t feel like my area has adequate representation. I want my representative to live in my area and know the ins and outs of what we need and want. Community leaders should live in their community.
Germantown resident: Taxation without representation. Just like the British thought they were kind and benevolent rulers, the Takoma Park-heavy leadership is similarly clueless about what goes on far away in upcounty. You’ve written about how hard it is to beat incumbents in elections, and I don’t think we will get folks familiar with upcounty without a major structural change like Nine Districts. We can’t get a call back from the at-large members up here, let alone get them to truly understand our issues.
Boyds resident: I have been involved for several years in advocating for upcounty issues and we get lip service (usually no response), but when it comes to voting, at large members just vote with the down county members. So practically speaking down county has eight votes and upcounty has only one, Craig Rice. That’s why one to one is better – total and clear responsibility.
Bethesda resident: We live in a very diverse county. The current structure has ended up concentrating political power down county which results in issues of import to upcounty communities getting short shrift. The current structure has also resulted in a uniformity of political views among our leaders. Even if I tend to agree with the stances of the current leaders on most issues, a more diverse set of viewpoints will be better for our community.
Clarksburg resident: I support 9 districts because Clarksburg constantly gets abused due to lack of political representation. The planning board wants to create a loophole to eliminate home building moratoria so they can keep issuing building permits in Clarksburg regardless of how crowded the schools get.
Montgomery Village resident: I listened to council members that live in Silver Spring and Takoma Park say how much they understand upper county because they came up to rallies or for some other “visit.” I’ve lived in downtown Bethesda (the real one not North) for five years and now in Montgomery Village for four. Two different worlds. Even the produce section of the grocery stores are different. I’m tired of politicians that talk about diversity as their key issue but don’t actually talk about how they can improve opportunities through jobs and new business growth. We’re actively looking to leave the county after this week’s display at the council meeting and BOE.
Olney resident: My experience is that at-large council members are not accountable to anyone. In theory they are accountable to the voters but in practice they are controlled by those who contribute the most to their campaign funds.
North Potomac resident: I have written my at-large “representatives” on several occasions in recent months (along with other council members as well) and the at-large members don’t even bother to send me an acknowledgement of my email. I know some members do send acknowledgements because some have acknowledged emails. There is nothing so frustrating as not only having my concerns ignored, but so flagrantly ignored as not to even acknowledge an email. It’s incredibly arrogant. They clearly don’t represent me and don’t want to. And as a life-long registered Democrat they can’t claim I am not a “constituent.” And even my district Council member doesn’t respond substantively as I assume he has too many constituents to be able to engage with individual constituents.
Gaithersburg resident: I think I support the Nine Districts because it seems to be an improvement – although imperfect – over the present system of “representation.” As a resident of our precious Ag Reserve, I have seen this Council make incursions into the Reserve without (in my opinion) fully researching and considering the effects of their actions on the preservation of farmland and open spaces. Hopefully, the Nine District system of representation would provide a better system for us to make our concerns known. The “At Large” members owe their elections to the highly populated areas, and as such, they can easily discount our concerns. That said, it does depend on the conscientiousness of the particular At Large member. One At Large member did reach out to the upcounty, and met with us at the Damascus Library. I am open to being persuaded to retain the present system but presently am leaning to voting for the Nine District option.
Clarksburg resident: As others are saying – responsiveness and representation. The At-Large system without any balance of geographic residential location leaves hundreds of thousands under- or un-represented. The lone one or two council member(s) who needs multiple at-large members to make change happen is too often left alone on issues. In theory at-large means you have all four of them representing you; in reality, at least in upcounty, we often have none. Zero. And this lack of responsiveness and responsibility can be summarized in one word, which is broad enough for those familiar with recent county history: Clarksburg.
The premise of the petition drive by Nine Districts for MoCo is that the current structure of the Montgomery County Council does not allow for fair representation for residents in the Upcounty because seven of the nine Councilmembers live Downcounty. As it has been since 2006, all four At-Large Councilmembers live south/southeast of Rockville. The problem isn’t gerrymandered districts. The problem is voter apathy. The Upcounty simply does not vote at the same percentage as the County overall.
First the data.
The source of this data is the 2018 Gubernatorial Democratic Primary. For better or worse, local elections are decided in the Democratic primary and have been since 2006. Given the current party affiliations of registered voters in the county, changing the make-up of the County Council to nine district seats will not change that. If the reason behind the push for 9 district seats is geographic representation, we have to look at the Democratic primary to see why we are where we are and what we can do to change it. Focusing on the primary also underscores why it has been so difficult to change the paradigm.
Every 10 years councilmanic districts are redrawn to provide an equal number of residents for each district. Theoretically Upcounty Districts 2 and 3 should have as much say in any given election as Downcounty districts, such as District 1 in Bethesda or District 5 in Silver Spring and Takoma Park.
Granted, while each district starts off with the same number of residents, there are differences in the number of registered voters in each district. Regardless of the number of residents, the number and percentage of registered voters is lower in the Upcounty than in other areas of the County. There are also more Republicans and Independent voters in the Upcounty. The disparity in the total number of registered Democrats in the Upcounty makes a difference in the number of votes cast, but the fatal discrepancy is in the percentage of eligible Democrats who vote. Looking solely at turnout of Democratic voters, Council District 2 lags behind the rest of the County by 7 percentage points and significantly falls short of District 1 (Bethesda / Potomac) by 17 points.
The concept of Upcounty / Downcounty is an informal distinction with no true definition. As an Upcounty activist, I define the area to be North-Northwest of Rockville to include all of Council District 2, parts of D3 (Gaithersburg) and parts of D1 (Darnestown and Poolesville). The total Upcounty results are very similar to the D2 results with 29% of registered Democrats voting in the 2018 Gubernatorial Primary. Of course, the Upcounty isn’t monolithic. We have Poolesville and Darnestown areas voting at roughly 38% and the areas of Germantown and Montgomery Village with 28% voter participation rate. [NOTE: Election results are not reported by geographical area. The Upcounty breakdown data is based on individual precinct data aggregated for each of the areas identified.]
The same pattern is seen when looking at the State Legislative Districts. Upcounty District 39 continues to be the lowest voter turnout in the County, election after election. Historically, District 15 also had low voter turnout. However, in 2018 there was a contentious battle for an open Congressional seat and we saw a significant increase in voter participation in the district.
The Upcounty doesn’t vote and nobody cares.
I understand that is an inflammatory statement. However, the lack of voter turnout in the Upcounty is not new by any stretch. Council District 2 has had the lowest voter turnout, as has State District 39, as far back as I remember looking at the data. Every so often someone – myself included – will become outraged and try to light a fire of activism that quickly peters out. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a systemic get out the vote (GOTV) effort in the Upcounty for the Democratic primary. There are 3 basic reasons why:
1. The current system works for everyone in power so there is no impetus for change. For candidates, including incumbents, it doesn’t really matter how many people vote. It just matters that you get the most votes. In every election I’ve ever seen, there is never enough time or money to reach every registered voter, let alone every potential voter. The most effective strategy is for candidates to reach out to the people who are most likely to vote – the “Super Dems” – which does not expand the voter base. In fact it perpetuates a small sliver of voters being responsible for determining our local elected body.
2. Similarly, candidates, including incumbents, go where the votes are. The first thing a candidate learns in How to Run for Office 101 is to know your number. How many votes do you need to win and where are you going to get the votes? If a higher percent of residents vote in the Downcounty, a candidate running At-Large will focus time and money in the geographic areas that turn out the most voters.
3. Another important factor is the role of the Democratic Party. Of course they want to increase voter participation, but their ultimate goal is to get Democrats elected in the general election. Because the primaries are partisan by design, the various democratic clubs don’t often actively engage in the primaries. While there may be some GOTV activity for the primary, the major push is for the general.
Does it really matter where the At-Large Councilmembers live if they still represent the whole County?
Yes. It’s a matter of representation which boils down to familiarity and exposure. As an active member of the community, a Councilmember is going to have a fluent knowledge of their own community much better than they do in other parts of the County – the schools, roads, parks, public safety, community structure, etc. In discussing transportation funding, it is so much easier for a Councilmember living in Silver Spring to understand the issues impacting Colesville Road than it is to fully understand the need for a road like M-83 – and if you had to look up what M-83 is, you proved my point. An At-Large Councilmember will continue to become more entrenched in their own community just by the nature of the geography. If there are a number of community events on a Saturday afternoon, it is much easier for a Councilmember who lives in Downcounty to hit three events in Silver Spring than come to events in Germantown. It’s also much easier for them to stop by an event on their way home from Rockville or drop by an event close to home between an early dinner and putting their kids to bed.
I’ve been working with At-Large members of the County Council for over 20 years in my job and in my community work. Through the years, some have done a much better job than others in being present and representing the Upcounty. I believe in the important role and function of the At-Large members of the County Council and do not advocate abolishing the At-Large seats, although I am intrigued by Adam Pagnucco’s recent blog post on increasing the number of geographic districts.
What’s the solution?
If the incumbents, candidates, and the party aren’t going to increase voter participation in the Upcounty, we need to take individual responsibility for our own representation and do what we can to get out the vote. Imagine if the time, effort and funding of the Nine Districts for MoCo initiative was spent registering Upcounty voters, educating those already registered about the importance of the gubernatorial primary in Montgomery County, and then working – as hard as they are working now – to actually Get Out The Vote on primary election day. If every person who signed the Nine Districts petition made it a personal goal to increase voter participation in the Upcounty, we could make it happen.
Looking again to the 2018 primary, if the Upcounty turnout was the same as the County’s overall average, we would have had 6,000 more votes in the Upcounty. That most likely wouldn’t have changed the results of the At-Large race. However, if the Upcounty turnout was the same as the average turnout for District 1, we would have had almost 16,000 more votes which most likely would have. At the very least it would tell future candidates that the Upcounty matters.
Marilyn Balcombe is a resident of Germantown who ran for County Council At-Large in 2018.