Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Ben Kramer’s Record in Annapolis, Part Three

A politician’s most important asset – or debit – may be his or her reputation. What do our spies think of Delegate Ben Kramer (D-19)?

Our informants are divided on Kramer. Here is the good and the bad.

The Good

Some spies describe Kramer as intelligent, honest and competent. He has been involved in politics at least since his father Sid was County Executive (1986-1990) and is more knowledgeable than most politicians. A few describe him as resistant to pressure from “special interests” because, as a self-financed candidate, he does not depend on them to get elected.

Many Montgomery legislators I have spoken to do not emphasize the county’s economic interests. One of them once told me, “I don’t represent the county so much as I do the state as a whole.” Another said, “Why should I get money for schools in Bethesda when the Baltimore City schools need it more?” Kramer would not stand for this sort of thinking for a moment. He is a genuine Montgomery patriot. Whether you agree with him or not, Kramer voted against progressive income tax reform and the millionaire tax because he thought they would damage the county’s economy. Tough, Montgomery-focused and unyielding to pressure from the Governor or leadership – that is Ben Kramer at his best.

The Bad

As intelligent as he is, Kramer falls short on people skills. One informant describes him as alternately charming and bullying and others call him “arrogant.” A few spies have heard him refer to himself in the third person in public. Kramer did not pick his battles well in the first two years of his term, is not popular with leadership and does not have many defenders in the Montgomery delegation. One politician said he is “a loser in Annapolis and wants to run for Council to escape his reputation and ineffectiveness in Annapolis.” But despite all this, one of Kramer’s bills (prohibiting financial exploitation of the elderly) just passed the House and Senate with unanimous votes.

Perhaps the most infamous Kramer blow-up occurred over the 2008 DNA bill (which Kramer co-sponsored in the House). The black caucus objected to an early version of the bill, saying it was too broad and intrusive and would disproportionately impact African-Americans. The Post reported:

When the bill came up at a private meeting of House Democrats, Del. Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Montgomery), who is white, infuriated many black delegates when he described some concerns about DNA as “irrational.”

African American lawmakers said they walked out of the meeting in a display of anger.

“We were extremely offended by his remarks,” Benson said. “We felt that there was a deep degree of insensitivity to our plight.”

“We never, ever qualify what a person's concern is,” Del. Tawanna P. Gaines (D-Prince George's) said. “We simply assume it's a genuine concern.”

In an interview, Kramer said that his comments were taken out of context and that he did not intend to treat black lawmakers disrespectfully. “I'm very frustrated that somehow what I said got turned on its ear,” he said.
My Impression

At last year’s Montgomery House Delegation’s hearing on local bills, I saw Kramer face off against District 19 Senator Mike Lenett over a speed camera bill sponsored by Lenett and Delegate Saqib Ali (D-39). Lenett and Kramer are not close, and it showed. Kramer grilled Lenett on the details of the bill, which would have prohibited contractor fees from being contingent on the number of speed tickets issued. Kramer, who is whip-smart and would have made an intimidating prosecutor, scored lots of points on the merits of his arguments. But Kramer’s relentless demeanor suggested that his purpose was not merely to critique the bill but also to demonstrate his overall superiority over Lenett. He showed no deference and no collegiality to his District 19 colleague.

Ben Kramer could handle the duties of County Council office from Day One. But is a council that is already full of tender egos and volatile personalities ready for him? We may find out soon enough.