All posts by Adam Pagnucco

Miscreants Run Wild at Elrich Press Conference

By Adam Pagnucco.

It was supposed to be a good moment for Montgomery County. County Executive Marc Elrich was set to announce a phase 1 reopening of county businesses, mirroring in part the recent announcement by Governor Larry Hogan. It was an occasion for cautious optimism with sober recognition of the challenges ahead.

Instead, it turned into a mud-splattered free-for-all.

That was probably inevitable given how the event was staged. The county announced through a press release the night before that the event was taking place at the Kentlands and Bethesda Beat published it. That gave protesters time to prepare and they weren’t planning on handing out cupcakes and milk. Just two weeks ago, they descended on Annapolis – many without masks – to resist “tyranny” and “trampling the U.S. Constitution.” Why would they behave differently in Rockville?

The smart thing to do would have been to hold the event in a controlled environment in the executive office building with attendance limited to press. But the administration decided to go for a photo-op in the Kentlands’ business district instead. Well, a photo-op was had – for the protesters. They got ample coverage from NBC4, WJLA, WTOP, Bethesda Beat and even Baltimore TV that they would not have received at a controlled indoor event.

“Dictator!” “Fascist!” “Nazi!” “Liar!” “Recall!” “Trump 2020 baby, that’s what this is all about!” Those were the nice comments. The protesters repeatedly interrupted and shouted down the executive, preventing others from hearing him. At an event with such heckling, a communications person normally steps forward to cut it off early. Instead, Elrich actually took questions and prolonged the event, which went on for more than 20 minutes. The sign language interpreter even interpreted the hecklers’ comments while standing right next to Elrich.

The look on Elrich’s face (far right) says it all. Also appearing: county health officer Travis Gayles (at podium) and the sign language interpreter (far left). Credit: WJLA Facebook stream.

Besides the relentless yelling, a number of unmasked protesters stood within spitting distance of the executive and his staff. One unmasked fellow in a hat and sunglasses stood behind him for nearly 15 minutes and, at one point, got dangerously close to the executive. Police officers were present. Why did they not move unmasked protesters away from the executive and his staff to protect their health?

How could security allow an unmasked man to get this close to the executive? Credit: WJLA Facebook stream.

As for the protesters, there were enough of them to make serious noise. Just like in Annapolis, the event turned into a mass gathering with unmasked people. The COVID-19 crisis is not over. It’s a complete contradiction to the county’s message to allow – much less to CREATE – a mass gathering including unmasked individuals. It’s not just a PR blunder, it’s a threat to public health.

Note the lack of masks by some at the event. The identity of the child, who was not wearing a mask, has been protected in this photo. Bethesda Beat has several more pictures of unmasked people at the event. Credit: WJLA Facebook stream.

Let’s not mince words: the protesters were boorish miscreants who should be held responsible for their own actions. They are an embarrassment to the county. All of that said, they should never have been given a grand stage on which to run amok in front of TV cameras. Someone on Elrich’s communications team should have raised what a bad idea it would be to hold the event in public with notice to anyone who wanted to attend. Some shutdown protests around the country have turned violent and armed protesters even stormed the Michigan Capitol. The protesters succeeded in turning an announcement which should have furthered stability and progress into one that spotlighted division and chaos.

This event should not have happened.

But it did. And once again the administration has endured a communications debacle that could have been avoided.

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MoCo is a Turnout Outlier

By Adam Pagnucco.

Yesterday, I published turnout data through May 26 showing that MoCo was dead last in Maryland. Today, I am publishing turnout data through May 28 showing the same thing. Folks, with 5 days to go until election day, it’s time to wonder what’s going on.

On May 26, 3.9% of those who received a mail ballot in MoCo were recorded as returning it. The return rate for the state was 14.1%. On May 28, MoCo’s return rate was 6.5%, still lagging the state’s rate of 16.5% and still the last in Maryland.

Compare MoCo to Frederick. On May 26, MoCo’s return rate was 3.9% and Frederick’s was 6.4%. On May 28, MoCo’s return rate was 6.5% and Frederick’s was 11.2%.

Another comparison worth noting is Baltimore City, which was plagued with late mailouts of ballots. The city’s return rate was 12.1% on May 26 and 13.7% on May 28, far higher than MoCo.

It’s worth noting that MoCo had one of the lower turnout rates in the state in the 2016 primary, although it was not at the bottom.

So what’s going on here? It’s a little early to say. Stories of folks getting late ballots or even getting ballots for people no longer living at their address are common on social media here. The county boards of election could also have different processing times for ballots. (David Lublin described how this works earlier today.) Or it could all be a timing fluke and MoCo could wind up in the bottom quarter of turnout, but not be an outlier, as happened four years ago.

If you’re concerned about this, the best thing to do is vote!

In the meantime, we will keep watching this data.

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MCPS Provides Details on Central Office Spending

By Adam Pagnucco.

In a recent post, I mentioned that MCPS’s central office spending had increased by 31% in three years, which was roughly triple the rate of spending growth in the school system’s entire budget. Derek Turner, Chief Communications Officer for MCPS, provided this explanation to us on changes in that spending category.

The increase in the MCPS Category I budget reflects a significant investment (nearly $9 million between 2017- 2020) to replace legacy business systems that are inefficient and ineffective for a school system of 167, 000 students and 24,000 employees. For context, MCPS has a set of legacy business systems that include paper-based timekeeping for employees; siloed financial systems that do not speak with one another; and a human resources system that relies heavily on the manual input of information. Given how outdated the systems are, when these systems come online, we will believe it will lead to long-term savings for the school system. Details about this increase can be found in the budget documents archived here: https://www.montgomeryschoolsmd.org/departments/budget/archive.aspx.

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Turnout Off to Slow Start

By Adam Pagnucco.

Maryland is holding its first-ever mostly vote-by-mail election. The State Board of Elections (SBE) has been mailing ballots to voters for weeks. Voters may mail ballots back to SBE, drop them off at vote centers or vote at the vote centers on election day (June 2).

SBE has had some delays in mailing ballots, especially in Baltimore City and Montgomery County. The fact that the ballots are marked with the wrong date may be an issue for some voters. And since this is the first primarily vote-by-mail election, there may be voters who have not adjusted and anticipate voting at their precincts.

Could the potential problems above have impacted voting? The table below shows ballots sent by SBE and received by SBE by county as of May 26 (yesterday). Also included are turnout rates from the 2016 primary. Turnout is waaaaaaay down – so far. Montgomery County’s turnout rate of 4% is particularly abysmal. But let’s bear in mind that there were still seven days to go until the election when this data was released.

These totals are going to increase in coming days. I’ll issue periodic updates.

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Where Are They Getting Their Money?

By Adam Pagnucco.

Recently, I posted totals raised and spent by candidates for school board in the primary. Today, let’s look at the geography of contributions in the at-large race.

The at-large race, easily the most contentious MoCo school board contest since the early 1980s, has many overtones of race and class owing to its discussion of school boundaries. In MoCo, race and class are synonymous with geography. The county has huge differences in race, language and economics between its various subdivisions. Indeed, most of the county’s wealth is concentrated in a handful of zip codes. The county has noticeable racial segregation in its schools as well as significant inequity between them.

I broke down the geography for individual contributions to five candidates – Stephen Austin, Sunil Dasgupta, Jay Guan, Lynne Harris and Dalbin Osorio. (Pavel Sukhobok, the 4th-leading fundraiser, only has 7 contributors other than himself.) For each candidate, I tabulated the number of contributors and total contributed by individuals for each major local area in the county. These figures exclude self-funding, PACs, businesses and unions.

Two areas require definitions. The first is the Downcounty Crescent, the areas in and around the Beltway that play a disproportionate part in Democratic primary voting. The Crescent includes Bethesda, Cabin John, Glen Echo, Chevy Chase, Kensington, Takoma Park and the Silver Spring zip codes of 20901 and 20910. This area trends left – with some places going far left – and is largely responsible for sending Jamie Raskin to Congress. The second is Upcounty, which I define as including Ashton, Barnesville, Boyds, Brookeville, Clarksburg, Damascus, Dickerson, Gaithersburg, Germantown, Laytonsville, Montgomery Village, Olney, Poolesville, Sandy Spring and Spencerville. This area contains a greater proportion of moderate Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters than other parts of the county.

Now let’s look at the candidates.

Stephen Austin

Almost two-thirds of Austin’s contributors and 75% of his individual funding comes from Bethesda, Potomac and North Potomac. These areas are home to some of the highest-performing high school clusters in the county. Austin is a leading critic of MCPS’s recent school boundary analysis. It makes sense that parents in these areas would be skeptical of having their kids sent to other schools.

Sunil Dasgupta

Silver Spring, the county’s largest geographic unit, accounts for 28% of Dasgupta’s contributors and 31% of his individual fundraising. The rest of his contributions are well dispersed.

Jay Guan

The vast majority of Guan’s contributors are east Asian so it makes sense that his geography would match the most heavily Asian high school clusters in the county (like Wootton, Churchill, Richard Montgomery and Clarksburg). Guan lives in Clarksburg so it’s no surprise that he is the runaway fundraising leader there.

Lynne Harris

Silver Spring is Harris’s biggest source of campaign funds – by far.

Dalbin Osorio

A huge majority of Osorio’s fundraising is coming from outside the county, with most of that coming from out of state.

Here is a summary of fundraising from four key areas in this race.

And so the contribution geography reveals the appeal of each of these candidates, at least in terms of fundraising. Austin has raised the most from Bethesda and has split Potomac with Guan. Guan has raised the most from east Asians, Rockville and Upcounty. Silver Spring and Takoma Park are going with Dasgupta and (to a lesser extent) Harris, although Dasgupta has the most geographic diversity of any candidate. Osorio needs to find more contributors who live in MoCo.

It’s a shame that the State Board of Elections won’t be releasing precinct-level data in the primary because then we could see if votes follow money. Let’s hope that we can get precinct results in the general election.

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Who Signed the Anti-Austin Letter – and Who Did Not

By Adam Pagnucco.

It’s common for elected officials to endorse candidates in school board races. What’s decidedly uncommon is for elected officials to issue anti-endorsements – in essence, telling voters NOT to vote for a candidate. But that’s what just happened minutes ago, as a collection of MoCo county officials and state lawmakers sent an open letter opposing a school board candidate to Maryland Matters.

Folks, just when you think you have seen it all – you have not!

The target of these elected officials is first-time school board candidate Stephen Austin, who is running for an open at-large seat. Austin says on his website that he is “committed to keeping kids in neighborhood schools” and has opposed MCPS’s school boundary analysis. Representatives of One Montgomery attacked him in Maryland Matters for allegedly “fomenting fear and division” over school boundaries, an accusation he has denied. A large group of elected officials are now urging voters to reject him, writing, “There are good choices to represent all perspectives in the upcoming race for Board of Education, At-Large. Stephen Austin is not one of them.”

Many elected officials have signed the letter but many have not. Here is the list of signers and non-signers.

County Officials Who Signed

County Executive Marc Elrich
Council Member Gabe Albornoz (At-Large)
Council Member Tom Hucker (D-5)
Council Member Will Jawando (At-Large)
Council Member Nancy Navarro (D-4)
Council Member Craig Rice (D-2)
Council Member Hans Riemer (At-Large)

County Officials Who Did Not Sign

Council Member Andrew Friedson (D-1)
Council Member Evan Glass (At-Large) – Note: Glass endorsed Lynne Harris.
Council Member Sidney Katz (D-3) – Note: Katz endorsed Sunil Dasgupta.

State Senators Who Signed

Senator Cheryl Kagan (D-17)
Senator Nancy King (D-39)
Senator Ben Kramer (D-19)
Senator Will Smith (D-20)

State Senators Who Did Not Sign

Senator Brian Feldman (D-15)
Senator Susan Lee (D-16)
Senator Jeff Waldstreicher (D-18)
Senator Craig Zucker (D-14)

Delegates Who Signed

Delegate Lorig Charkoudian (D-20)
Delegate Charlotte Crutchfield (D-19)
Delegate Bonnie Cullison (D-19)
Delegate Lesley Lopez (D-39)
Delegate Eric Luedtke (D-14)
Delegate David Moon (D-20)
Delegate Kirill Reznik (D-39)
Delegate Vaughn Stewart (D-19)

Delegates Who Did Not Sign

Delegate Gabe Acevero (D-39)
Delegate Kumar Barve (D-17)
Delegate Al Carr (D-18)
Delegate Kathleen Dumais (D-15)
Delegate David Fraser-Hidalgo (D-15)
Delegate Jim Gilchrist (D-17)
Delegate Anne Kaiser (D-14)
Delegate Ariana Kelly (D-16)
Delegate Marc Korman (D-16)
Delegate Sara Love (D-16)
Delegate Julie Palakovich Carr (D-17)
Delegate Lily Qi (D-15)
Delegate Pam Queen (D-14)
Delegate Emily Shetty (D-18)
Delegate Jared Solomon (D-18)
Delegate Jheanelle Wilkins (D-20)

It’s noteworthy that not a single state legislator from Districts 15, 16 and 18 signed the letter. These districts are home to the wealthiest neighborhoods in the county and have the highest achieving high school clusters. Austin lives in Bethesda and has raised most of his campaign funds from these areas. (More to come on that tomorrow.) These facts are probably not aligned in coincidence.

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Campaign Finance Reports, School Board Primary

By Adam Pagnucco.

The second round of campaign finance reports covering contributions and expenditures in the school board race were due yesterday. They cover campaign activity through May 17 and are the last reports to be released before the June 2 primary. The table below presents cumulative totals combining the first and second reports for all candidates. Those with data marked “NA” filed affidavits stating that their campaigns did not collect or spend more than $1,000 for the reporting period.

In the at-large race, Jay Guan is the leader with $27,443 raised, followed by Sunil Dasgupta ($22,760) and Stephen Austin ($20,730). Lynne Harris, who was endorsed by the Washington Post, ranks 6th with $7,456 raised. The district races were quiet.

These are small amounts of money compared to county executive, county council and state legislative races, but Guan, Dasgupta and Austin have all done pretty well for school board candidates. Here is how their totals compare to other (relatively) well-financed school board candidacies in the primary over the last decade.

So far, the single largest expenditure by any candidate in the race is Guan’s mailing of a postcard in early May, which cost $13,861. However, the Maryland State Education Association, which has endorsed Dasgupta, sent out a glossy mailer on his behalf shortly afterwards. That mailer’s cost is not available from campaign finance records but almost certainly exceeds the cost of Guan’s mailer.

Facebook’s political ad tracker shows that Dasgupta has spent more money on Facebook ads than the rest of the at-large field combined.

So far, the most expensive Facebook ad in the race has been this one by Dasgupta which promoted some of his endorsements.

The second most expensive Facebook ad was this one by Austin attacking Harris. Austin may be calculating that if he can knock out Harris, he will enter an insider vs outsider general election against Dasgupta.

Combining his own spending with the independent expenditures of the teachers union, Dasgupta may be running the most vigorous campaign overall. Harris’s money problems are impeding her ability to publicize the Post endorsement, which should worry her supporters. Austin has done well to keep pace financially with Dasgupta despite the latter’s endorsement by multiple unions and numerous elected officials. The big question is what Austin plans to do with his $13,048 cash balance. If he had spent it on Facebook ads, he would easily have outspent Dasgupta. Either he is saving it for a last push or he is banking some money for the general election.

Following is a list of the most prominent contributors to Austin, Dasgupta, Guan and Harris.

Stephen Austin
Coalition for Better Montgomery PAC: $3,000 (Note: this contribution was criticized by One Montgomery, which earned a response from Austin.)
Alexander Bush, Chairman, Montgomery County Republican Party: $500
Pete Fosselman, Former Mayor, Town of Kensington: $100

Sunil Dasgupta
MSEA Fund for Children and Public Education: $3,500 (Note: this is the state teachers union. The county teachers union has endorsed Dasgupta.)
SEIU Local 500: $1,000 (Note: this union represents support staff in MCPS and has endorsed Dasgupta.)
Sidney Katz, Montgomery County Council Member: $250
Eric Luedtke, Delegate: $250
Jeffrey Slavin, Mayor, Town of Somerset: $250
Casey Anderson, Chair, Planning Board: $100
Aruna Miller, Former Delegate: $100
Mark Pierzchala, Council Member, City of Rockville: $100
Steve Silverman, Former Montgomery County Council Member: $100
Vaughn Stewart, Delegate: $100
Partap Verma, Planning Board Member: $100
Neil Harris, Council Member, City of Gaithersburg: $50
Dan Reed, Author, Just Up the Pike: $50
Hans Riemer, Montgomery County Council Member: $50

Jay Guan
Lily Qi, Delegate: $500

Lynne Harris
Diana Conway, President, Women’s Democratic Club: $300
Marc Elrich, Montgomery County Executive: $100
Tom Hucker, Montgomery County Council Member: $100
Jill Ortman-Fouse, Former School Board Member: $100
Al Carr, Delegate: $50

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Council Urges Hogan, Franchot to Extend Alcohol Carryout and Delivery

By Adam Pagnucco.

In a letter spearheaded by Council Member Andrew Friedson, the entire county council is urging Governor Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot to extend the ability of restaurants to sell alcohol by carryout and delivery after the current state of emergency is lifted. Many restaurants are hanging on for dear life and news that the state’s unemployment rate has tripled only underscores how tough it will be to sustain consumer spending. We reprint the council’s letter below.

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Unemployment Triples in Maryland

By Adam Pagnucco.

Today, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released its preliminary state-level unemployment numbers for April. In March, BLS estimated Maryland’s unemployment rate at 3.3%. In April, BLS estimated Maryland’s unemployment rate at 9.9%.

That’s a tripling of Maryland’s unemployment rate in one month.

Here are BLS’s estimates for the components of the unemployment rate in March and April, as well as in 2019.

Perhaps the most interesting estimate from BLS is that of the 415,359 people who lost their jobs in April, more than half (220,230) left the labor force entirely. That means they are without jobs and, according to BLS, not currently seeking work. In contrast, BLS defines unemployed people as having “no employment during the reference week, were available for work, except for temporary illness, and had made specific efforts to find employment sometime during the 4-week period ending with the reference week.”

As high as the April unemployment rate may be, it’s bound to be lower than the state’s unemployment rate today. That’s because BLS’s reference week for a monthly estimate is the week containing the 12th day of the month. State data indicates that 296,842 unemployment insurance claims were filed in the four weeks ending on April 11 while 310,946 more were filed in the five weeks thereafter. That means that May’s unemployment rate will be significantly higher than April’s.

Maryland’s labor force is not the only casualty of the COVID-19 crisis. BLS reports that D.C.’s unemployment rate rose from 6.0% in March to 11.1% in April. In Virginia, unemployment rose from 3.3% in March to 10.6% in April. Nationally, unemployment rose from 4.4% in March to 14.7% in April. The bright side for Maryland, D.C. and Virginia is that they all have unemployment rates significantly below most other states.

To put April’s unemployment rate in perspective, I pulled Maryland’s annual unemployment rate numbers from 1976 to 2019 and charted them below. Unemployment varies with the business cycle and peaked in 8.3% in 1982, 6.8% in 1992 and 7.7% in 2010. In each of those instances, the unemployment rate took three years to reach its peak. This time, the acceleration of unemployment took one month. What will next month look like?

BLS has not yet released county-level data for April. When it’s available, I will post it.

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Franchot: Reopen Outdoor Seating at Restaurants

By Adam Pagnucco.

Comptroller Peter Franchot has called for the reopening of outdoor seating at restaurants. His statement on Facebook is reprinted below.

*****

At the start of today’s meeting of the Board of Public Works, I called for the State of Maryland to begin the process of allowing our restaurants to serve customers OUTSIDE on patios, sidewalks and even streets that are closed for vehicular traffic.

While I do not believe we are ready to allow indoor seating and service, based upon all of the available data, I feel that we have to make this allowance in order to give our restaurants – the cornerstone of a hospitality sector that employs 458,000 people in our state – a fighting chance to survive. They just cannot make it on carryout and deliveries alone.

This new outdoor seating policy would have to be done with true adherence to social distancing and other preventative best practices, and we know that it CAN be done. To state the obvious, outdoor seating is far safer than indoor seating, and my fear is that if we don’t make this common sense policy adjustment sooner rather than later, we won’t have a restaurant industry left to save.

In short, let’s do it safely, responsibly and soon. Let’s #TakeItOutside.

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