Tag Archives: Neil Greenberger

Random Bits, October 2017

By Adam Pagnucco.

Chris Wilhelm is Winning the Sign Wars

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

Who Has Momentum in Council District 1?

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

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

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

Where’s Duchy?

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

Can Greenberger’s Strategy Work?

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

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

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

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

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Greenberger Guarantees No Property Tax Hikes

By Adam Pagnucco.

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

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

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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.

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Awkward!

By Adam Pagnucco.

On Tuesday, the County Council learned that their own spokesperson is planning on running for one of their seats.  Um, OK.  And… they learned about it like everyone else did by reading it on MCM.

Um… Awkward!

Neil Greenberger, who has been the council’s Legislative Information Officer since 2006, announced his potential candidacy by telling MCM, “I would chance to say I know as much about county government as anybody in the county.”  Including his bosses?  Um… well, you get the point.  Greenberger could run in District 2 if incumbent Craig Rice vacates his seat.  Otherwise, he would run at-large.  Greenberger said he would stay in his job while he runs for office and give it up only if elected.

To appreciate how strange this is, let’s understand that the two most sensitive staff positions for most elected officials are their Chief of Staff and spokesperson.  The former person is privy to the official’s most confidential discussions and decision-making.  The latter is the official’s conduit to the public.  Both individuals have to mirror the boss’s priorities exactly and can never diverge positions from them outside of closed doors.  That’s part of the deal when you work for an elected official.

Patrick Lacefield, Greenberger’s counterpart in the Executive Branch, works for one boss.  And Ike Leggett, by all accounts, is a good boss to have.  Greenberger has NINE bosses and not all of them are as gentlemanly as Leggett.  Imagine having nine ropes around your neck pulling in nine different directions and you have some idea of what it’s like to be Greenberger.  It is not an easy job.

Now imagine what happens if Greenberger actually runs.  During the day, he would continue to be the council spokesperson, working with the members and their staff to get out information to the public.  And then at night and on weekends, he would be a fellow candidate.  Let’s remember that open seat candidates are frequently asked what they would do differently than the incumbents.  So part of the time, Greenberger would be working for the Council Members and the rest of the time he would be critiquing them.

It gets even weirder.  If Greenberger runs at-large, he will be running against current at-large incumbent Hans Riemer, who is sure to seek a third term.  It’s also possible that he could run against District 5 Council Member Tom Hucker, who could run at-large.  Then there’s the matter of all the other at-large candidates (and there will be a lot of them).  Suppose Greenberger loses.  Will his victorious opponents then be required to retain him as their spokesperson?

We can’t recall another occasion when the council’s own spokesperson ran for one of their seats.  The closest recent analog to this situation happened in 2006, when George Leventhal’s Chief of Staff, Valerie Ervin, decided to run for the District 5 seat.  Since Leventhal was an at-large member, Ervin was not running against him.  But she still left her Chief of Staff position as the campaign started.

Greenberger has as much right to run for office as any other county resident.  But if he stays in his current job while he runs against one or more of his employers, he will be creating immense conflicts.  Council Members need to trust that their communications are written for their benefit and for the benefit of the institution – not for the personal political benefit of the individual writing them.  The fact that they were blindsided by the MCM article is not a good sign for future trust.

Unless adult supervision steps in – and we are talking about the council’s staff director, Steve Farber – this could be a wild ride.

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