Thursday, February 12, 2009

Who are the Real MoCo Progressives? Part Four

So you want to protect your neighborhood from overdevelopment? And you want strong schools and good jobs? Those are mutually compatible goals, right? Not in Montgomery County.

As we have seen in Parts One, Two and Three, two groups claim to be Montgomery County’s “real progressives.” The neighborhood progressives believe that the county’s problems stem from a voracious, corrupting and polluting development class. The new progressives believe that the county’s most serious problems are caused by a lack of equality of opportunity in education and jobs. These two groups disagree on their diagnosis of the county’s ills and their proposals for improvement. And that disagreement has boiled over into open conflict.

Some of these battles are small but reveal the larger struggle in the background. The Hillmead dispute pitting neighbors wanting to enlarge their park against affordable housing advocates is one example. Another is the conflict over whether to preserve the Falklands apartments or replace them with a larger housing project that has set the Montgomery County Civic Federation against Action in Montgomery. A disagreement between Just Up the Pike blogger Dan Reed and East County civic activist Stuart Rochester over the proper course of revitalization in Burtonsville erupted on Just Up the Pike a few months ago. Even the Purple Line dispute contains hints of this struggle, pitting people protecting their neighborhoods against people seeking to improve the quality of life for working-class commuters. There will be many more of these small but intense conflicts over the next few years.

More serious is a rupture between the unions and the civic federation. We covered the debate over whether to reduce the public employees’ FY 2009 cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) to close the county budget deficit extensively on this blog. Much of the support for the COLA cut came from tax-weary civic activists who had previously backed limits on development. Montgomery County Education Association board member Eric Luedtke cautioned the civics on this guest blog post:

As a number of prominent members of the slow growth community have recently been calling for cuts to employee salaries, salaries which are sustainable in the current budget situation, a sense has developed among many public employees that the slow-growth community is anti-union. I personally don't believe this is true, as I know a number of leaders of the slow-growth movement who are passionately pro-union. But the debate in the recent Council District 4 election, statements circulating by e-mail from Civic Federation activists, and comments made by a number of slow-growth members of the council make that argument a difficult one to maintain…

I would argue that it's a bad idea on the merits to cut the salaries of those employees who teach this county's children, protect its citizens from crime and fire, maintain its roads, and staff its libraries. But leaving aside the merits of the arguments, the slow growth coalition in the county is courting disaster right now. And given that, 2010 looks to be a very different election year than 2006 was.
Former Montgomery County Civic Federation President Wayne Goldstein did not heed Luedtke’s warning. After the FY 2009 budget debate was resolved without reducing the COLAs, Goldstein offered the following opinion:

In what could perhaps be described as the most complete abandonment of its budget responsibility in the 58 years that the Montgomery County Council has existed, Councilmembers voted unanimously last Friday to close much of the largest operating budget gap ever by balancing it on the backs of property owners. This Council did not require that even one cent be contributed by the county's unionized employees to help close the gap. Instead, these well-paid workers will receive generous wage and benefit increases equal to 8 to 10% of their current earnings…

Despite the effort of 2 Councilmembers to stand their ground by insisting on a reduction in the union COLAs, in the end, they too abandoned any effort to say no to the unions. By initially saying no and then surrendering their high ground of shared sacrifice by joining in a so-called compromise, these Councilmembers look even weaker than if they had just given the unions what they demanded in the first place. There was much posturing by all of the Councilmembers last Friday as they tried to rationalize and even conceal their failure to set limits for the unions for the future. There was self-serving talk about honoring current contracts, either because it was a noble and just thing to do, or because Montgomery County has the best, hardest working employees of all, or because the Council had already accepted and paid for the first year of the current union contract last year.

There was wishful talking about the Council telling the unions ahead of time what they would accept for the next union contract. This was said as if such a statement could possibly constrain unions from relentlessly demanding ever-expanding wages and benefits in the secret negotiations of collective bargaining where the county negotiators are also unable to stand up to hardened union negotiators…

This Council has begun to vigorously dig a hole of fiscal irresponsibility. It needs to stop digging and to climb out of this hole while it still can. Otherwise, things will end up badly for all of us.
These two sides are now significantly suspicious of each other: “the civics” vs. “the unions,” as if each was somehow monolithic. Nonsense. I, for example, am a career trade unionist who is also active in my civic association (which did not take a position on the COLAs). But no matter – we are led to believe that the two and their allies are now fundamentally opposed, each holding the only key to the palace of progressivism.

In the next round of county elections in 2010, neighborhood progressives and new progressives will come together around very different candidates. That will create demands on all the leaders, all the activists and even the bystanders to choose sides. Be a progressive or be with “the others.” There will be no middle ground.

One day, whites, blacks, Latinos, Asians and everyone else will live in rough economic and demographic parity. The county’s downtowns will be dense and walkable centers of culture, residence and industry. Sky-high gas prices will discourage auto use and spur the creation of a much more elaborate bus and rail network than we have today. And the battle over the ICC will recede into dim memory just as the conflict over the North Central Freeway has. But it is clear we will not get to this future without a fight.

Will the next generation of county leaders really be able to get past today’s conflicts? Maybe, maybe not, but one thing is certain. They will all be calling themselves progressives.