Tag Archives: Washington Post

MoCo’s Nasty School Board Race, Part Two

By Adam Pagnucco.

In addition to being one of MoCo’s nastiest races of all time, this year’s school board election is arguably the strangest ever. Consider a list of typical election activities that are hampered or altogether prohibited by the COVID-19 lockdown.

Door knocking – Fuhgeddaboutit.

In-person campaign coffees and fundraisers – Fuhgeddaboutit.

Lit handouts at Metro stations – Fuhgeddaboutit.

Lit drops – It’s not clear if this counts as essential travel. It’s also not clear if this will creep out voters.

Campaign forums – They are not possible to do in person. There are opportunities to do these online but there will be far fewer of them than in a regular cycle.

Poll coverage – Fuhgeddaboutit!!

So what’s left? No candidate currently has the money to do serious mail. Blast emails are possible, but if anyone has an email list, I’m not on it. (For the record, I have been added to TONS of political email lists!) Signs have been distributed along with the usual instances of illegal placement. Bethesda Beat is covered with school board ads. (Steve Hull wins every election!) Social media ads are cost effective and several candidates have used them, but they can’t replace all of the other campaign tools that have been knocked out by the virus. Then there is the word of mouth being circulated by supporters of one candidate or another, but to see it, you have to be connected to the partisans. The HUGE majority of voters are not in these bubbles.

Let’s remember that this is a presidential primary and all county voters with all party affiliations can vote. In the 2016 primary, 183,479 people voted in MoCo’s at-large school board race. That far exceeds the number who vote in mid-term Democratic primaries for governor, county executive and county council at-large, races which have much more financing than school board contests. The two candidates who emerged from the 2016 primary had more than 50,000 votes each. This year’s winning number could be higher if the all-mail election encourages higher turnout as it did in Rockville and also because of national factors.

Given all of these limitations, you would have to be crazy to be a campaign manager in this race!

That said, there are certain factors that could make a difference.

The Apple Ballot

The Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) has an excellent record of getting its endorsed school board candidates through primaries. MCEA’s choice this year is Universities at Shady Grove professor Sunil Dasgupta, who proudly puts the Apple Ballot front and center on his website. Historically, the union’s most effective tactic has been distribution of Apple Ballots at voting precincts, but that is now impossible due to COVID-19 restrictions and the state’s transition to a mostly mail election. The teachers can still use social media and they have sent at least one mailer promoting their candidate. One note of caution comes from February 2008, when an ice storm shut down MCEA’s poll coverage, resulting in a rare defeat for its candidate in a primary.

The Washington Post

Along with the Apple Ballot, the Post’s endorsement is one of the top two in school board races and has a great record of helping candidates win. At first it seemed the Post was going to sit out the primary (as it has done before), but over the weekend, the newspaper endorsed former PTA president Lynne Harris. This is a huge problem for anti-boundary analysis leader Stephen Austin, who now faces one candidate with the Apple, another one with the Post and a primary from which only two candidates will emerge. One question: with Harris’s lack of funding and the Post endorsement coming so late, will she have the time and bandwidth to capitalize on it?

Stephen Austin’s Facebook Group

Say what you will about Austin and his group, but his page is larger than any other MCPS-related site that could play a part in this election. Consider these Facebook page statistics at this writing.

Montgomery County MD Neighbors for Local Schools (Austin’s group): 8,033 members
Montgomery County Education Association: 4,006 followers
Montgomery County Council of PTAs: 1,573 followers
SEIU Local 500 (an endorser of Dasgupta): 1,154 followers
One Montgomery (favors school equity, opposes Austin): 846 followers
Sunil Dasgupta’s campaign page: 595 followers
Stephen Austin’s campaign group: 358 members
Lynne Harris’s campaign page: 275 followers
Jay Guan’s campaign page: 185 followers

None of the candidates’ pages are large enough to have any organic effect on the election though they can be used for ads. But through his “neighbors for local schools” page, Austin can reach out to roughly 8,000 people, an advantage that no other candidate has. In an election with no poll coverage by the Apple Ballot, no ground-level campaigning and no serious money for any candidate, how big of an advantage is this?

One Montgomery’s Attack Piece

The brutal One Montgomery attack piece in Maryland Matters linking Austin to Trump supporters and anti-LGBTQ activists has gotten a lot of attention on his critics’ pages. But has it really penetrated beyond the progressive circles that were unlikely to vote for Austin anyway? For this piece to be truly effective, someone has to place a four- or five-digit social media ad buy to push it out to the general public. Otherwise it will be just one more thing to argue about for the relative handful of folks inside the bubble.

The Alphabet

Don’t laugh, but in down-ballot, under-the-radar races, being near or at the top of the ballot can get a candidate a few extra points. Research of varying quality has found this to be the case in Danish local and regional elections, Vancouver local elections, California state elections, California city council and school board elections, Ohio county elections and British local council elections. Austin will be listed second on the ballot. Will that matter?

However these factors mix, there are two likely scenarios. If Dasgupta and Harris emerge from the primary, this will turn into a traditional Apple vs Post race. But if Austin breaks through to claim one of the primary spots, this will be more insider vs outsider with school boundaries front and center. Jay Guan, the fundraising leader who has mailed a postcard, may also have a chance.

There is more to an election than tactics; there is also policy at stake. Part Three will conclude with a few issues that have been overshadowed by the boundary analysis war but nevertheless warrant attention from the candidates.

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Post Endorses Harris and Evans for School Board

By Adam Pagnucco.

The Washington Post has endorsed Lynne Harris and Shebra Evans for school board. Evans is an incumbent running for reelection in District 4. Harris is a former PTA president running for an open at-large seat in a strongly contested and controversy-packed race.

The Post and the Apple Ballot are hugely influential in school board elections. Because Universities at Shady Grove professor Sunil Dasgupta already has the Apple, it will be hard (but not impossible) for candidates other than Harris and Dasgupta to make it out of the at-large primary.

I will have a lot more to say about this soon.

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Three Keys to School Board Races

By Adam Pagnucco.

Make no mistake: running for school board is TOUGH.  The MoCo school board has two at-large seats, five district seats and one seat elected by MCPS students.  Of the seven non-student seats, all of them – at-large and district – are subject to voting by the entire county electorate.  Three seats – one of the at-large seats plus Districts 2 and 4 – hold elections in presidential years, which attract tons more voters than gubernatorial years when elections for other state and county offices are held.  Since the school board seats are non-partisan, both primaries and generals can be real competitions.  Finally, Republicans, unaffiliated and third party voters can vote in school board primaries as well as generals.  So school board candidates have to communicate with waaaaaay more voters than county-level and state legislative candidates and they have a lot less money to do that.

Dear readers, think about all of the above before you decide to run for school board!

And so these races are distinguished by little money, large electorates and woefully inadequate press attention.  That’s why three factors are almost always key to deciding them.  They are:

1.  Incumbency.  This is an important advantage in most elections.  Incumbents have opportunities to learn the issues, assemble records, build relationships and accumulate name recognition.  School board races are no exception.

2.  The Apple Ballot.  The Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) has long had the most advanced political program of any group that participates in MoCo elections.  Its centerpiece is the mighty Apple Ballot, an apple-shaped endorsement flyer that is widely distributed at election time.  Few if any groups care more about school board elections than MCEA since board members set policy, hire the superintendent and approve collective bargaining agreements.

A version of the Apple Ballot from 2006.  Note the placement of school board candidates at the top.

3.  The Washington Post endorsement.  The Post regularly endorses in school board races and the newspaper has a reach that extends beyond traditional Democratic voting constituencies.  The Post is also occasionally critical of MCEA although it sometimes supports the same candidates as the teachers.

Without the benefit of significant resources to communicate with vast numbers of voters, school board candidates with one or more of the above advantages are heavily dependent on them to differentiate themselves from the pack.  That’s why while all of the above advantages matter in any race, they may be especially critical to candidates for school board.

The table below shows candidates in contested school board races from 2006 through 2018 and the distribution of incumbency, the Apple Ballot and the Post endorsement.  In some cases, the primary was uncontested because there were two or fewer candidates while the general was contested.

A casual glance demonstrates the value of incumbency, the Apple and the Post endorsement but let’s be more explicit.  The table below shows win rates for all three, as well as combinations of some or all of them.

In every tabulation, candidates holding at least one of the above three advantages win at least 75% of the time.  Holders of more than one advantage often win more than 90% of the time.  Candidates holding both the Apple and the Post, whether or not they are incumbents, are nearly a lock.  The one recent exception was in 2016, when at-large incumbent Phil Kauffman had both the Apple and the Post and was still defeated by former Paint Branch High School Principal Jeanette Dixon.  In that race, Kauffman earned the Apple Ballot after the primary and the Post did not endorse him until October, possibly weakening the value of those endorsements.

These three factors don’t explain everything, but they explain a lot.  While it’s possible to win without any of these advantages, as Dixon demonstrated, it’s very difficult.  Keep an eye on these keys as this year’s school board races move forward.

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Post Editorial Board Goes After Elrich… Again

By Adam Pagnucco.

The Washington Post has published an editorial branding Council Member Marc Elrich, who is currently leading in the Democratic primary for Executive, as “an outlier who proudly positioned himself on the ideological extreme left” and “the most insistently anti-business and anti-development member of the Montgomery County Council for more than a decade.”  Those who are interested in the Post’s opinion can read it here.

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The Washington Post Ballots

By Adam Pagnucco.

Two ballots were handed out today announcing county-level endorsements by the Washington Post.

The first one shows all of the Post’s endorsements for County Executive, County Council and Board of Education.  It has an authority line from David Blair’s campaign.  We hear that several other Post-endorsed campaigns distributed it in addition to Blair’s people.  The presence of an authority line makes it legal and the fact that it included all the county Post endorsements, not just some, is fair.

The second one shows just four of the Post’s endorsements: County Executive (Blair), Council At-Large (Evan Glass and Marilyn Balcombe) and Council District 1 (Andrew Friedson).  The other two Council At-Large Post endorsees (incumbent Hans Riemer and Gabe Albornoz) do not appear.  It has no visible authority line.  This particular one was distributed in Bethesda but we have no idea how many were handed out.  If it indeed lacks an authority line, this ballot violated state election law.  It was also misleading because it only partially lists the Council At-Large endorsements.  No campaign has admitted responsibility for this flyer.

We have not seen a “Washington Post Ballot” in the past.  But if it continues, and if campaigns can agree on funding it, it could conceivably be turned into an alternative to the Apple Ballot.

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Setting the Record Straight: the Post Got it Wrong in their Anti-Elrich Editorial

The Washington Post sure has done a number on Marc Elrich.

In a second editorial endorsing David Blair for county executive, the Post quoted Elrich stating “I prefer to put jobs in Frederick” as proof that he “wants to focus employment elsewhere” – seemingly a damning charge against a candidate for Montgomery County executive.

Setting the Record Straight

The quote is taken from the Greater Greater Washington (GGW) blog post arguing that “Marc Elrich is not the right choice for Montgomery County Executive.”

Broadly, Elrich isn’t convinced Montgomery County needs to add many new homes or residents, or jobs. Many people with jobs in Bethesda or DC are now living in Frederick County and other outlying areas and driving through Montgomery to get to work. We asked Elrich what he’d do for these folks, and his answer was, “I prefer to put jobs in Frederick.” He’d encourage the growth of both households and jobs to happen there, and in Prince George’s County, and elsewhere.

I listened to the GGW interview with Elrich and the quote is taken out of context and utterly distorts the record. Marc makes clear that he wants economic growth, indeed that it is vital to the county’s future because our current budget trajectory is not sustainable into the future. If there is no money, he realizes that there will be no way to pay for efforts to do more to help people in poverty and others try to get a leg up.

So what did Marc Elrich mean when he said “I prefer to put jobs in Frederick”?

It was part of a much larger discussion of housing policy but the broader point was that it would be good to have jobs in many locales, including Frederick City, so the people up there don’t have to commute so far, which would also help alleviate traffic in Montgomery – an enormous concern – and help the environment.

He’d like to see more people have shorter commutes and more jobs near them around the region. That includes Montgomery, where many people suffer in traffic on the American Legion Bridge every day and probably would just assume not live their life stressing about whether traffic on the bridge is going to prevent them from picking the kids up. Moreover, the discussion was taking place in the context of the regional Council of Governments’ goal for housing and jobs around the region, which unsurprisingly includes plans for more of both in Frederick.

More broadly, Elrich doesn’t see economic activity as a zero-sum game where Frederick’s gain is necessarily Montgomery’s loss. Ironically, the Post has repeatedly lamented that DC, Maryland and Virginia didn’t come together on a bid for Amazon, an idea in the same vein, so I would have thought they’d appreciate this bow toward regional cooperation. The late Kevin Kamenetz didn’t bid for Amazon because he thought it belonged in Baltimore City and that Baltimore County would nevertheless benefit.

Both the Post and GGW have distorted the record. They clearly think Elrich is wrong for Montgomery County. But they shouldn’t twist his words out of all recognition to make their argument. It just undermines their case.

George Leventhal’s GGW Problem

Voters would find many of the ideas that GGW pushes hard in their interview far more shocking than Marc’s points. GGW’s version of “smart growth” doesn’t focus primarily on areas close to transit hubs and stations but promotes much higher density at almost any location with a bus line or they deem bikeable.

The heavily trafficked River Road Corridor is a prime example of where they’d like to see far more housing units built. They’d like to have seen far more density at Westbard, and to extend the Purple Line down the Capital Crescent Trail there. Previously, they’ve attacked the Kentlands as insufficiently dense, so their vision of “smart growth” is quite different from what many argue is good suburban development.

They also want Elrich to support allowing people to sell single-family homes to be torn down for high density buildings. Elrich sensibly pointed out that people who buy homes want some security in the neighborhood and that people who don’t want to move just end up next to a tall building with super high property taxes that they can’t pay. My guess is that GGW’s platform would not exactly get people to flock to their endorsed candidate, George Leventhal.

Most bizarrely, while smart growth advocates heavily pushed for more density around Metro and the Purple Line because there is no more room to build, GGW turns that on its head in its post inveighing against Elrich, claiming that he would open up far too little of the county to development. In my view, that’s not smart growth. It’s just development writ large.

Elrich’s Growth Agenda

Elrich’s promotion of a bus-rapid transit system for the county is probably the most pro-growth and pro-smart growth initiative launched in recent years, which makes GGW’s opposition all the stranger. My hope is that it would help start to break the Gordian knot of conflict between civic associations and developers by providing a real transit system for Montgomery that addresses transportation issues even as we grow.

GGW touts Leventhal as a proponent of “real” BRT because he wants it wholly in separate lanes, which would require more property takings, make it much more expensive, and therefore unlikely to happen. Marc argues sensibly for reversible BRT lanes, as there is no need for a separate lane going against rush hour traffic. That’s spending smart, something our government badly needs.

Just four years ago, I watched George Leventhal taking a passive aggressive negative approach towards Elrich’s BRT proposal without outright opposing it during a debate. He also lambasted now Council President Hans Riemer for the seemingly mild proposal to spend more on and improve Ride-On Bus service, an idea that David Blair now wants to put on steroids. I understand GGW applauds George for his staunch Purple Line support. But as on the minimum wage, he has been highly changeable on taking their transit vision into the future.

Conclusion

We have a lot of excellent candidates for county executive beyond  David Blair and Marc Elrich, including former Rockville Mayor Rose Krasnow, Councilmember Roger Berliner and Del. Bill Frick. There are excellent cases for all of them and plenty of room to critique Elrich’s housing and other policies. I haven’t voted yet and am still looking closely at them. Let the debate continue but based on their actual records and positions.

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The Problem with the Post’s Blair Endorsement

The Washington Post took Councilmember Roger Berliner (D-1), a candidate for county executive, to the proverbial woodshed for having the temerity to compare David Blair, their preferred candidate to Donald Trump.

That ship had already sailed when George Leventhal made the same comparison to another businessman candidate, David Trone, so it’s not exactly unexpected.

Where the comparison breaks down is that David Blair is by all accounts not a narcissistic, racist, sexist, congenitally lying bigot who enjoys publicly abusing people and acting inappropriately on the campaign trail in ways that demean himself and the office. Unlike Trump, Blair strikes me as very confident rather than supremely insecure and in need of constant reassurance. He also possesses the ability to listen and to take in new information.

The comparison nevertheless has some validity. Running a county government is vastly different from running a corporation, as many business executives who have entered public office have quickly discovered. While Blair thinks he can quickly build relationships with the new Council, it’s just not going to be that simple. They wouldn’t be his employees and may have completely different, even opposed goals. Victory with less than 40 percent in a Democratic primary is hardly likely to inspire deference.

Voters also have some reason not to trust the Washington Post’s judgement in this matter – not so much because of their centrist ideology but their track record. The apt comparison is not to Donald Trump but to the last time the Post wrote multiple editorials endorsing a local business outsider: Sharon Pratt Dixon.

In a series of avid, page long editorials the Post made the case for Dixon for mayor of the District of Columbia in 1990. At the time, the city was in crisis at the time with many governmental functions breaking down, people leaving the city, and Mayor Marion Barry under arrest on drug charges. (Throughout the campaign, a local program at 11:35 on weeknights called “Mayor Barry’s Day in Court” kept us depressingly up to date.)

The Post argued rightly that that the city needed someone who was more than just not Marion Barry but a proponent of major reform. They argued passionately, but it turned out wrongly, that Dixon was that person. Dixon was a wonderful speaker who articulated a great vision but showed no ability to carry it out after winning the Democratic primary with 34% of the vote.

Her failure led to her coming in third in the 1994 primary with just 13%. The winner was Marion Barry, a born pol, with 47%, leaving the District back where it started. It took Anthony Williams, who had experience as the city’s CFO, to lead the city a positive new direction and make changes that still matter a lot today.

So the Post may be right about Blair. If you like him and his ideas, that’s great. But don’t let the Post’s strong conviction in their choice sway you too much. The Post focuses very strongly on the District these days in their local coverage. Your knowledge of the local scene may well be better and your intuition about what Montgomery needs just as valid.

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Is This the Most Expensive Facebook Ad in MoCo Politics?

By Adam Pagnucco.

County Executive candidate David Blair wants you to know that the Washington Post has endorsed him.  Wait, that doesn’t do it justice.  He really, REALLY wants you to know that.  Why do we say so?  Because he may have purchased the most expensive Facebook ad in the history of MoCo politics to publicize it.

Most Facebook ads from state and local candidates cost less than a hundred bucks and run for a few days.  The more you pay, the bigger the audience, but there is considerable variability in exposure and targeting.  Still, a $50 ad on something good is a cheap way to get your name out there.  If every exposure costs two cents (a VERY rough guesstimate with a lot of spread), that fifty bucks could get you on 2,500 feeds and draw a few dozen interactions.

The exact stats on ad cost and engagements are available only to the advertisers.  But Facebook has a political ad tracker that reports stats in ballpark ranges.  Here’s a report of an ad that Council Member George Leventhal is running on his hilarious Avengers-themed campaign video.  He spent up to $100 on the ad and it showed up on 5,000-10,000 feeds.  (The actual people count will be less because some will have seen it more than once.)  This is a very typical ad in MoCo politics.

Now here is the ad Blair is running on his Post endorsement.  The report indicates that he spent between $10,000 and $50,000 and it showed up on more than a million feeds.

By the standards of MoCo politics, that’s unheard of.  Even David Trone rarely spends more than $1,000 on his Facebook ads.  We know of one ad – on men’s mental health – on which Trone spent between $1,000 and $5,000, receiving between 10,000 and 50,000 impressions.

So if you live in MoCo and have a Facebook account, we bet you know that David Blair has been endorsed by the Washington Post.  And if you didn’t, well… you need to log in!

Disclosure: Your author supports Roger Berliner and spends way too much time on Facebook.

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Washington Post Endorses for MoCo Council, School Board

By Adam Pagnucco.

The Washington Post has endorsed the following candidates for County Council and Board of Education.

Council At-Large: Gabe Albornoz, Marilyn Balcombe, Evan Glass, Hans Riemer

Council District 1: Andrew Friedson

Council District 2: Craig Rice

Council District 3: Sidney Katz

Council District 4: Nancy Navarro

Council District 5: Tom Hucker

Board of Education At-Large: Julie Reiley

Board of Education District 3: Pat O’Neill

Read their endorsements here.

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