Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Who are the Real MoCo Progressives? Part Three

Last year’s special election in Council District 4 demonstrated the differences between the two groups of “progressives” in Montgomery County as well as any other event in recent history. Each group saw it in a completely different way.

For neighborhood progressives, the election was about development – and only development. They viewed the 2006 county elections as a referendum on growth that they had won at the ballot box. Five winning County Council candidates had promised to slow the rate of development in the county and had partially accomplished that goal in the 2007 growth policy. But now Marilyn Praisner’s unfortunate passing had created an opening that the developers were scheming to take over. They had to be stopped.

For new progressives, Mrs. Praisner’s departure created an opportunity to boost Montgomery’s most prominent county-level Latina politician – School Board President Nancy Navarro – onto the council. Ms. Navarro’s agenda focused on maintaining the quality of the schools, one of the most important desires of the newer communities in the county.

The campaign was tough and bitter, as we chronicled at length on this blog. But it was not just Don Praisner and the other Democrats vs. Nancy Navarro. It was an all-out Civil War between the county’s progressives. After Mr. Praisner won, neighborhood progressives celebrated. Sharon Dooley, a former County Council candidate, stated on this blog:

Many of us who live in the Olney area and others across the upper Montgomery County regions who could not vote in the District 4 Council race are now breathing freely again. With the Democratic primary won by Don Praisner, we are confident that the prudent fiscal and moderate growth policies voiced by Marilyn Praisner will continue to be heard in the council chambers, if he defeats the challenger, as expected in May.
Stuart Rochester, another Praisner supporter, went further in a Gazette column:

The lesson for Navarro — and for other aspirants in the future — is that there has emerged also an increasingly vociferous middle class anxious over the effects of congestion on the county’s roads and streets, proliferating crime, environmental degradation, the threat to established communities from accessory apartments and other relaxation of building codes to accommodate affordable housing needs, and mounting infrastructure requirements and social demands that appear to be overtaking the county’s ability to pay for them. Don Praisner’s triumph, whether it amounts to a validation of the slow-growth, fiscal responsibility mandate or not, clearly tapped into that sentiment.
These statements revealed the anxiety of neighborhood progressives about this election. A victory by a developer-backed candidate meant a return to the pro-growth policies of the past that they had worked so hard to turn back.

The new progressives were mostly quiet in defeat, but their anger is still seething. They are appalled at the closing of ranks in the establishment (the County Executive plus four County Council Members) against a promising, pro-education young Latina politician. That is not mere racial and ethnic tension; it occurs in a context.

There have been 75 County Council Members since the council was created in 1949. Only three Council Members have been black – Ike Leggett (1986-2002), Valerie Ervin (2006-present) and Donnell Peterman, who was appointed to serve out the last few months of Derick Berlage’s term in 2002. One Council Member has been a Latino (Tom Perez, 2002-2006) and none have been Asian. The other 71 Council Members were white, including seven of the current eight. During the special election, one of Nancy Navarro’s immigrant supporters told me, “We want one person on the council – just one – who is one of us. Is that too much to ask?”

For new progressives, developers are not always the enemy. How can jobs be created without a healthy real estate industry? How can the tax base grow at a sufficient rate to support the county’s schools, which are increasingly populated by students who do not speak English as a first language, if economic growth is shut down? Developers are neither inherently good nor inherently evil. If they are willing to make common cause with new progressives on creating jobs and expanding opportunities, then there is nothing wrong with working with them.

Neighborhood progressives view this attitude as hopelessly naïve. Through their infinite avarice, the developers overbuilt the county well past its capacity to house people and jobs. The result was higher costs for the government, more traffic and more pollution which oppresses everyone, newer people as well as old. If the developers truly cared about the poor and the working class, they would voluntarily build affordable housing without being forced to do it by the county’s Moderately-Priced Dwelling Unit program and they would submit to rent control. All the new progressives are accomplishing is to make themselves the latest generation to be co-opted by the county’s greedy development industry.

Can these two groups of progressives ever resolve their differences? We’ll see in Part Four.