Category Archives: Montgomery County

Valerie Ervin for County Executive?

A reliable source tells me that former County Councilmember Valerie Ervin (D-5) is planning to jump into the race for Montgomery County Executive. I’ve reached out to her for comment but have not yet received a response.

Valerie Ervin won election to the School Board in 2004 prior to winning the District 5 Council seat in 2006–the seat now held by Tom Hucker. A past President and Vice President of the County Council, she stepped down in the year before her term ended in 2014 to take a job with the non-profit Center for Working Families.

Ervin briefly sought the nomination for the Eighth Congressional District in 2016 before pulling out of the race, which she explained was due to the challenge of raising the enormous sums of money required to be competitive.

The new public financing system would likely make it easier for to run a competitive campaign for county executive without raising the huge sums required for a congressional contest. Still, she would need to act fast to catch up with other candidates.

If she enters the contest, Ervin will be the only woman, African-American, or nonwhite candidate in the race. As Montgomery County is now 19.5%  black and only 44.7% non-Hispanic white according to Census estimates from 2016, this could prove an advantage. African Americans likely punch above their weight in the Democratic primary, as a disproportionate share are Democrats and vote compared to other racial and ethnic groups.

Democratic primaries are also disproportionately female, with women regularly comprising around 60% of the electorate, and sometimes even higher. Still, Montgomery voters have shown that they vote based on a variety of factors. Being from the same group as a voter may help get a candidate in the door but concrete issues and reasons are needed to gain a vote.

As I’ve mentioned previously, while in office, Councilmember Ervin had the knack for being well-liked by both labor and business, though the bloom was definitely off the rose in her relationship with labor by the time she left office. Her recent work for the Center for Working Families, however, has burnished her progressive credentials–helpful in a year when many are still energized by Bernie Sanders or angry about Donald Trump.

On other hand, many remain disquieted that Ervin left her Council seat early. In 2016, she endorsed Donna Edwards for Senate over Chris Van Hollen, who remains extremely popular in Montgomery and won handily here in the primary.

Interestingly, if she runs, Ervin would be running against her former boss, Councilmember George Leventhal. Both are officials who have eclectic sets of supporters in the past but would be trying to appeal to the progressive vote in this election.

Consequently, an Ervin candidacy would not help Leventhal’s prospects. It also could well provide an alternative to some Elrich voters, particularly those who would welcome a nonwhite candidate or our first woman as county executive.

At the same time, I imagine Marc Elrich would not be shy about pointing out occasions where he and Valerie diverged on business or social justice issues. Labor unions with long memories, especially MCGEO and the Police union, might enjoy exacting revenge. Ervin had good relations with SEIU but it might also join other unions in backing Elrich.

At any rate, Ervin’s entry would sure shake up an already interesting race. Will she take the plunge?

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Montgomery Republicans Down the Rabbit Hole

No Republican has won election to any local or state legislative office in Montgomery County since 2002. Even 15 years ago, the County was not exactly awash in a sea of red, as the two sole elected Republicans were liberal Del. Jean Cryor (R-15) and Councilmember Howie Denis (R-1).

After three electoral cycles of coming up empty, the MoCo GOP’s chances of ending this electoral drought look bleak in 2018. Why is the only viable alternative to the long-governing Democrats in so much trouble?

Donald Trump

Trump was a disaster for Montgomery Republicans. Both John McCain in 2012 and Mitt Romney in 2008 won a paltry 27% of the vote in Montgomery—down from 33% won by Bush in 2004 and 34% in 200. Trump managed to drive the Republican share of the vote down another 8% and gained just 19% of the vote in Montgomery.

Tarnished National Brand

The Republican brand at the national level is now toxic in Montgomery. Many people who might be open to an alternative will not vote for anyone associated with a party that is as socially conservative on issues like gun control, abortion and LGBT rights as the Republicans. Trump has identified the party with racism that renders it even more anathema and helps explain its further slide in 2016. Even on economic issues, national Republicans are far more extreme than more moderate Montgomery voters.

Heightened Partisanship

In the not too distant past, people were reasonably willing to defect from their preferred party to vote for attractive candidates, especially incumbents, of the other party. No longer. Voters are now much more likely to cast a straight party ticket. In 2016, not a single state split their tickets for U.S. Senate and President. Republicans are on the wrong side of this equation in Montgomery.

Poor or No Candidates

Right now, the only declared Republican candidate for county executive is gadfly and perennial candidate Robin Ficker. When a major party in a county with over 1 million residents is reduced to running a guy who has lost 13 elections and is a frequent flyer at judicial ethics hearings, it has a problem.

Ficker’s antics attract a lot of attention—he makes Nancy Grace look press shy—but he doesn’t do more electable Republicans any favor. Beyond explaining whether they voted for Donald Trump in 2016, Republican candidates will also have to answer if they plan to vote for Robin Ficker for county executive in 2018.

Even though no candidate might benefit other Republicans more than Ficker in the county executive race, the inability of Republicans to find candidates in many races is the sign of a weak party. Democratic primaries, in contrast, tend to be extremely crowded for open seats—a signal of the value of the party’s nomination and a deeper candidate pool.

Extreme Base

One might think Montgomery Republicans would respond to their repeat rejection through moderation. However, its base is now much more extreme than in the past. This note I received in response from a locally active Republican to my post over the weekend calling for more attention to the plight of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands exemplifies how massively out of step local Republicans are with Montgomery voters:

[T[his post below I find extremely offensive and lacking in the usual factual rigor that you seem to usually try to bring to bear.

You are making hateful accusations ​against President Trump that have ZERO basis in fact and which only serve to undermine your credibility.

​I hope you will write an apology and a retraction and stick to facts instead of ad hominem attacks against President Trump moving forward.

Here is the “extremely offensive” attack with “ZERO basis in fact” on Donald Trump referenced in the email:

We know the President virtually does not care. Between his ravings on other topics, he barely had time to spare a tweet for Puerto Rico. He did have time to feed red meat to an all-white hard-right crowd in Alabama by attacking African-American NFL players.

In general, I try not to rush to “go there” because there enough hate in the world without suspecting it in ambiguous situations. But Donald Trump has enough of a record that it seems more than fair to ask if he might express more than an iota of interest if these were not overwhelmingly Latino and Black territories?

Donald Trump has now followed up his lack of interest with a new tweet criticizing of Puerto Rico for its debt crisis–amazingly oblivious from a man infamous for welshing on debts from massive loans for casinos to payments owed small businessmen.

As usual, the response from other Republicans is silence.

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Analysis: Bill Frick Announces Campaign for County Executive

Frick Announcement by David Lublin on Scribd

Del. Bill Frick (D-16) has announced his bid for county executive. He should attract a lot of attention and interest because he’s the first person who is not a member of the County Council to jump into the race in a year when many voters are looking for someone new yet seems up to the job.

As Adam Pagnucco has analyzed, based on the support for term limits among Democrats, it’s a real plus that Frick is not associated with the current gang running the County. While other candidates will definitely hold him accountable for his actions in Annapolis, it is not at all clear to me that voters will rush to blame the State for decisions made in Rockville.

Being new to most voters also gives Frick a chance to introduce himself along with his ideas simultaneously. He’ll probably want to take a few more daring, clearcut positions that existing candidates in order to claim some issues and set himself apart from the pack.

Frick should also be an appealing campaigner. When he went for the delegate vacancy in District 16, he was not the favorite for the appointment. He won it when he blew away the Montgomery County Democratic Central Committee with his presentation.

Ironically, though Frick is thus far the only non-Jewish candidate in the race, he has real potential to appeal to Jewish voters. Growing up where he did in Montgomery County, my bet is that he attended more Bar Mitzvahs than I did. Remember that many Jewish areas in MoCo voted for Ike Leggett over Steve Silverman.

Frick will face some challenges as well as opportunities. After an abortive race for attorney general four years ago and dabbling heavily with running for Congress, he will need to sell observers on his real commitment to County government.

He will also need to work fast to define himself in an appealing way that stands out before others do it for him–something that will require money whether inside or outside the new public financing system. Even attacks, however, can create opportunities. MCGEO’s Gino Renne, for example, has criticized Frick in the past but could serve as a useful foil.

Among the existing candidates, Roger Berliner is the big loser and Marc Elrich is the big winner from Bill Frick’s entry. Berliner was positioned to be the more practical, pro-business candidate. Frick could attract much of that support if business decides to unify around a fresh face who is more willing to forthrightly support aspects of their agenda.

As the leading progressive candidate in the race, Elrich will benefit if less strongly left-wing candidates split up the vote. He could benefit further if other candidates in the same political space enter the race. Leventhal may also try to claim the progressive mantle but will likely lack the validators needed to make it credible.

Bill Frick’s entry certainly shakes up the race. My guess is that voters welcome his candidacy as a breath of fresh air. Whether his campaign catches fire remains to be seen.

UPDATE: Bethesda Beat’s Andrew Metcalf reports that Frick does not plan to participate in the public financing system: “‘I’d rather raise my own funds than spend the taxpayers’ dollars on my campaign,’ Frick said about his decision.”

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David Blair is Polling

Sources report that David Blair, a businessman and prospective candidate for Montgomery County Executive, has a poll in the field. The poll tests views on a number of topics and messages, including:

  • Support for the Purple Line
  • Whether Takoma Park has an unfair advantage over the rest of the County.
  • Messages based on running against Trump using national issues.
  • Impact of a series of positives about Blair, including his support for an interactive children’s center in Rockville and providing glasses for the needy.
  • Support for Del. Bill Frick and former Councilmember Mike Knapp in addition to declared candidates and Blair.
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O’Malley Endorses Fosselman

Former Gov. Martin O’Malley has endorsed former Kensington Mayor Pete Fosselman in the District 1 Council race:

Pete Fosselman is a results-driven leader who has the know-how and experience to accomplish big things for the people of Montgomery County, Throughout his distinguished career in public service, Pete developed a reputation as a consensus builder who knows how to get things done on important issues like economic development, education, smart growth, and a better quality of life for Maryland’s seniors.

It’s a nice signifier that Pete Fosselman is a major contender for the  seat being vacated by Roger Berliner. It’s not a complete bolt from the blue as Fosselman and O’Malley have long been friends.

Fosselman also served in O’Malley’s administration as Deputy Secretary of State–a position to which Gov. Larry Hogan reappointed him. Currently, he works as the planning coordinator for the White Oak Science Gateway project for County Executive Ike Leggett.

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Evaluating the Candidates for County Executive: George Leventhal

Today, I conclude my series on the current major declared Democratic candidates for county executive with a discussion of George Leventhal’s candidacy. Previous posts took looks at Marc Elrich and Roger Berliner.

Introducing George Leventhal

Like Nancy Floreen, George won election initially on Doug Duncan’s “End Gridlock” slate. Since then, he has won reelection three more times and is now completing sixteen years on the County Council, including two terms as its chair. In his last reelection, George came in fourth among the candidates for at-large seats in the Democratic primary, winning 20% fewer votes than leader Marc Elrich. George is unquestionably passionate about his positions and unafraid of arguing for them forcefully.

His proudest accomplishment is seeing the Purple Line to fruition but, like most significant political acts, this is a victory with many parents. Since it’s a done deal and all the candidates favored the Purple Line, it’s difficult to campaign on the question. One cannot differentiate when voters cannot perceive a difference.

Who is the Leventhal Voter?

In previous profiles, I’ve outlined the core constituency for the candidate. George Leventhal’s central problem is that his core constituency remains hard to identify even after four terms on the Council. He’s been on too many sides of too many different issues to have a natural base. Previously, he opposed a minimum wage increase but now he’s for it. While he was elected on a road-building platform, he now says that he was not elected to build roads. He is pro-immigrant yet lost CASA’s endorsement in the last election.

This leaves George adrift in County politics. Unions don’t trust him because of his past position on the minimum wage and his complete willingness to vilify them when he opposed them on such issues as breaking contracts during the recession and his correct decision, endorsed by the voters, to overturn the overly restrictive bargaining practices with the police union.

Business doesn’t trust him for the same reason. George has been a strong supporter of development, but he now dismisses opponents of the minimum wage increase. George would argue that he evolved and learned on these issues and only a fool never changes his mind. He’s certainly right about that but heaven and earth have changed places a few times too often to attract any of the County’s natural core constituencies.

George has also alienated many in the western half of the County through his repeated denigration of their interests and concerns on any number of issues. George knows he has a problem here. At the at-large Council debate held in Chevy Chase four years ago, George  attempted to prove this inaccurate by reading a thank-you note from a constituent. He got hot under the collar when the audience was visibly unimpressed.

Personality

Supporters would describe George as passionate and pugnacious. George is unquestionably extremely passionate but too many of the people active in politics he now needs as validators for him as a candidate see him as a rude bully. George’s view is that your gentle blogger invented this notion and that his strong convictions excuse any occasional excesses. Unfortunately for George, many others have identified the problem, including the Washington Post, and George’s temper toward colleagues and constituents alike is well known.

George has now learned at an intellectual level what he needs to say and do. He does his best to smile more and to talk about how he wants to bring people together and respect those who disagree. I wish him well in these efforts–we all have room for growth and self-improvement. The problem is that he’s just not there yet and his reputation is well-established after so many years.

Conclusion

Being unable to identify your voter is like a firm being unable to identify its client base. Your business is in trouble. Sixteen years on the Council, including two terms as Council president, also make it difficult to present yourself as the new kid on the block and argue that you’re a force for reform and change. Accordingly, I see George as a second-tier candidate, though the votes he gains may nevertheless sway the race one way or another.

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Evaluating the Candidates for County Executive: Roger Berliner

Today, I continue my look at the current crop of candidates for county executive with Roger Berliner.

Introducing Roger Berliner

Like Marc Elrich, Roger Berliner didn’t make it to the Council on his first try. He lost the Democratic nomination for District 1 in a special election in 2000 in a bitter primary battle against Chevy Chase Village Board Chair Pat Baptiste. However, he won the nomination without opposition in 2006 and then went on to defeat the well-liked Howie Denis, among the last of the moderate Republicans elected in Montgomery. Indeed, Denis was often more liberal than his Democratic colleagues.

In many ways, Roger faces the toughest district on the Council. The most affluent district in the County, his constituents are extremely well-educated and possess a sense of their own agency that render them far less likely to be intimidated by government officials. At the same time, precisely because he represents a successful area, it can be difficult for him to gain attention for his district’s real concerns even if his constituents pay a disproportionate share of taxes. On top of that, Roger has maintained his support for the Purple Line in the area that contains the strongest opposition and where many see little benefit but much expense.

Nonetheless, Roger has navigated the political currents well. In the last election, former at-large County Councilmember Duchy Trachtenberg tried for a second act with strong support from her erstwhile enemies in the unions. Roger didn’t just win; he annihilated Duchy with almost 80 percent of the vote. A nice validation from his constituents.

Roger’s Niche in the Race

Almost by default, Roger has become the pro-business candidate in this race. I write by default because it’s not because Roger is a right winger or the ideal business candidate. In politics, one often has to choose the least bad option. From the business perspective, Roger is that candidate and they even hold out hope that he could be a good option.

Roger will likely center his case on the claim that he can get the County’s stagnant economy moving again—a vital concern both for citizens and the County budget, which desperately needs more revenue to avoid service cuts and to repair aging infrastructure and voters look unwilling to stomach another set of tax and fee increases.

Roger has taken enough liberal stands that he should remain within the comfort zones of those who have liberal impulses but remain more practical (read: centrist). In particular, Roger has carved out a strong environmental record and pushed consistently for efforts to reduce carbon emissions in our populous county.

He has also made himself Pepco’s leading critic—not a bad place to be with consumers–as the company firmly believes it should always earn a profit whether or not it can keep the electricity flowing. However, under much scrutiny after the derecho, service has improved, so this issue has declined in salience, even if few County residents will object to Roger’s efforts to fight the latest hike in utility rates.

Making the Case

Marc Elrich’s candidacy centers around economic justice. Roger Berliner will need to articulate his own vision if he wants to win. Specifically, he will need to explain how he will get the County moving again economically. He’ll need to do it with enough specifics that it convinces voters that it’s not just the usual puffery. At the same time, he can’t get caught up in the minutiae, as Democrats tend to do, so that voters lose the plot and get bored. Roger will also need to make the case for why focus on growth and new jobs matters.

Within this vision, Roger will also include liberal values and principles. He might also choose to pair his economic vision with another non-economic progressive notion to attract voters more to the left or at least stay within their comfort zone. A tricky balancing act, as he also wants to avoid being so wishy-washy that business doesn’t have to curb their enthusiasm, but Roger has proved adept at figuring out a route through these political currents.

Weaknesses and Challenges to Roger’s Candidacy

Roger’s central problem is communication. More specifically and to be overly blunt, it is one of authenticity. It is not that Roger lacks authenticity—he has adhered tenaciously to a set of core values through his three council terms—but a problem of presentation. Perhaps due to his training as an attorney, Roger comes across frequently as just a bit too practiced and too careful when responding to voters.

Politics is about connecting with voters, so Roger will have to reveal more of that underlying authentic passion if he wants to win. I don’t want to overstate the issue—Ike Leggett has been a very careful and very successful politician—but Sanders and Trump resonated for a reason. Still, Montgomery was Hillary country and Roger has won tough contests before, so he won’t need to take it too far.

Conclusion

Roger dodged a bullet when David Trone decided to take his business experience and his wallet to the Sixth Congressional District. If he can consolidate business support and continue his past successful outreach to other communities, he should be a top-tier candidate. He remains highly vulnerable, however, to new candidates who could do the same from outside County government, as voters remain desirous of turning over the reins to new leaders.

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Evaluating the Candidates for County Executive: Marc Elrich

The field is incomplete but we already have three major Democratic candidates for county executive in Councilmembers Roger Berliner (D 1), Marc Elrich (D At-Large), and George Leventhal (D-At Large). All three have eyed this office for some time. Now, thanks to term limits, they have to move up or out. Today, I begin a series taking a look at each of their candidacies, starting with Marc Elrich.

Introducing Marc Elrich

Former Takoma Park Councilmember Marc Elrich had to run repeatedly before he won a seat on the County Council. Once he did, he flourished with the voters but less so with his colleagues. In his last two elections, despite relatively small campaign kitties, Marc emerged clearly on top of the primary for the four at-large seats.

But he finds himself on the end of 8-1 Council votes more often than others, and George Leventhal defenestrated him from the Planning, Housing and Economic Development (PHED) Committee when he became council chair. He has never been elected Council chair, though that could work to his advantage, as it aids his efforts to position himself as an outsider running against the status quo during a time when even people in Montgomery County seem dissatisfied with the establishment.

The Progressive Champion

Marc’s lane in the race is as the solid progressive candidate. Put another way, if you liked Bernie’s strong stand in favor of taking meaningful action to do something about economic inequality and aid people who are struggling, you should love Marc. He has been the most consistent and staunch progressive on the Council, most recently championing increasing the minimum wage to $15. He is popular with County employee unions with MCGEO’s Gino Renne hugging him especially tight in an embrace that could get uncomfortable. Marc doesn’t take large contributions from developers, though he’s hardly popular among them in any case.

Personal Strengths

His strengths, however, go beyond his natural appeal to the Democratic progressive base centered in Takoma Park and Silver Spring. Marc is extremely well-liked among civic activists around the County because he listens and takes their concerns more seriously than any other councilmember.

Though some find him brusque, more appreciate his individualized attention to neighborhoods all around the County, and his general willingness to have a respectful conversation even if you disagree. A former teacher, Marc possesses the rare ability to explain complex issues in ways that people can understand and without resorting to insider argot.

His Big Idea: Bus-Rapid Transit

Marc can also claim to have brought the major (only?) out-of-the-box idea to the Council in the last twelve years in his plan for a bus-rapid transit network around the County. I’ve long found the idea appealing because it provides a means to give Montgomery County a real public transit system at a far more reasonable price than either light or heavy rail. It also has the potential to reduce tension between civic and business organizations, as it would genuinely address transportation concerns and simultaneously allow for more development.

Marc, however, has found it more difficult to promote his vision among his colleagues despite strong voter support. Indeed, his fellow at-large councilmembers—Nancy Floreen, George Leventhal, and Hans Riemer—have taken a jaundiced approach to BRT even though they have remained nominally supportive. (The at-large councilmembers have a natural habit of looking jealously at each other since they compete at election time.) After twelve years, we are only now getting ready to take action to construct a pilot BRT line, and Roger Berliner would argue that it took his leadership to obtain unanimous Council support to move forward.

Challenges for Marc’s Candidacy

While having many strengths, Marc also faces challenges in his bid for county executive. Business is terrified of the idea of him, perceiving as madness his advocacy for left-wing ideas from rent control to a higher minimum wage to making commercial developers pay more for improvements that benefit them to his support for retaining the County’s antiquated liquor monopoly.

His advocacy against a system that he perceives as screwing over most people to benefit the wealthy fits within his political brand and has real appeal to much of the Democratic base. Still, Montgomery remains an affluent place with many card-carrying members of the establishment. Neighborhoods at all income levels espouse conventional middle-class values and are filled with people who want to move up rather than tear the system down.

Marc will need to operate within their comfort zone if he wants to win and his occasional burst of hardcore left-wing sentiments on non-economic questions may be off putting to more skittish supporters and provide ammunition to his opponents. His recent sharing of a video attacking Winston Churchill on Facebook provides a good example. While Marc sees it as balancing the hagiography of Churchill’s wartime leadership to create a more historically honest picture, it looks bizarre and distracts from his fundamental economic message and political brand. It weakens the valuable bonds that Marc has built with many communities through long-term cultivation and hard work.

Conclusion

Regardless of who runs, Marc will be a top-tier candidate. He will run as the progressive champion and should harvest the lion’s share of their votes. Other candidates will find it hard to challenge him on this terrain and among this constituency.

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Looking for the Next County Executive, Part II: The Future

The next county executive will face major challenges. Montgomery County’s economy is not performing well. While it’s a long-time cliché that we’re losing business to Northern Virginia—Ellen Sauerbrey campaigned on that theme in 1994—the County has not done well in creating new employment over the past several years.

Jobs, of course, are critical to success of county residents and also the tax base. Employment is the best social justice program ever invented. If the tax base stagnates, there will not be enough money to maintain the array of services for which Montgomery County is renowned, let alone spend more to lend people who need it a helping hand.

I’m hoping that whoever is elected county executive will have a forward-thinking plan for economic development. Though the newly launched Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation imitates the highly successful efforts of Howard and Fairfax to pursue business opportunities, I remain skeptical that it will achieve the same levels of success, as currently managed and structured.

We also need someone who is willing to break a few eggs and not see barriers as they launch more ambitious projects in a manner reminiscent of Doug Duncan. Even though they will not all work out, new ideas both for the County and how to organize County government to work better and more efficiently need to be tried or the County’s relative decline will start to feel a lot less genteel very soon.

The challenge will be especially great because tax increases are not a real option. Though we are now out of the recession, the income tax remains set at the charter limit. In 2016, the County Council achieved the unanimity required to increase property taxes significantly above the charter limit. Fees have also gone up for everything from recording property to public parking. The one area of tax opportunity may be making commercial development pay for improvements that clearly aid their own efforts.

While being inventive, the new county executive should maintain certain key policies of the Leggett Administration. In particular, the County must continue to adopt budgets and fund future obligations in a manner that retains its AAA bond rating. The County Executive also needs to focus on the core priorities of local government. Too often, the County Council has spent an inordinate amount of time on issues peripheral to core functions.

Finally, and perhaps most important in our era of seemingly toxic politics, we need someone who continues Ike’s outstanding record of listening respectfully to people who disagree, often vehemently, and is a model for civility in governance. That should be possible even as the new executive presses forward with new ideas and needed reforms.

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Looking for the Next County Executive, Part I: Ike’s Legacy

After three terms, Ike Leggett is stepping down as Montgomery County Executive. Ike arrived in office at a very tough time, just before the bubble burst in 2007 causing revenues to collapse even as need soared. He had to make extremely difficult budget choices and he made the right ones, choosing to protect education and public safety even though that meant he had to slash funding for other treasured items, like libraries.

The other great talents that Ike Leggett brought to the office were calm and civility. Even as the economy came crashing down, he projected cool stability—a welcome contrast to the approach taken by many other leaders. Ike is also rightly known for treating constituents consistently with respect and dignity that remains a welcome model in an era of increasingly harsh politics.

While Ike made the right choices in where to cut the budget, he did not use the recession to reshape Montgomery County government. This was a missed opportunity to reorganize the County to try out potentially more efficient ideas designed not to just meet current budget challenges but to also set the County up ready for the future.

Tomorrow, I continue with a discussion of what sort of focus and approach that Montgomery County needs in its next county executive.

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