Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Wanted: Darth Vader

County Executive Ike Leggett is on the verge of losing control of the volatile disability issue. But that is just one symptom of his growing problem. While Leggett is still well-liked personally, his administration is increasingly plagued by rebellious County Council Members and a Rockville political environment that is drifting away from him. Most believe that Leggett’s hire of Steve Silverman as his Director of Economic Development was a good move, but Silverman is not the employee Leggett most needs. Who he really needs is Darth Vader.

The disability issue has become a broader window into the increasing willingness of Council Members to challenge Executive prerogative. Last September, the Inspector General identified “insufficient internal controls and management oversight” of the police disability program leading to higher rates of benefit approval than other jurisdictions. The Executive then entered negotiations with the Fraternal Order of Police to revise the program, but Council Members Phil Andrews and Duchy Trachtenberg introduced a bill three months later to restructure it. Andrews and Trachtenberg simply don’t believe the issue should be collectively bargained. Neither does Council Member Roger Berliner, who voted for it in committee. But that position erodes the right of the County Executive to negotiate working conditions with the county unions. The council may well vote on the bill today.

Four other Council Members (George Leventhal, Valerie Ervin, Nancy Floreen and Mike Knapp) obtained a proposal from the police for restructuring the program which we reprint below. They are adamant that they are not negotiating with the police. But Valerie Ervin said this to the Post: “We felt someone had to lead, and we decided it would be us.” Again, this is a direct challenge to the prerogatives of the Executive as well as an explicit criticism of his leadership.

The common factor uniting all of these Council Members is a frustration with the slow pace of the renegotiation and a willingness to intervene. Some are frustrated more broadly with the slow-moving tendencies of the administration, such as its failure to reach a new agreement with the Fire Fighters, its drawn-out resolution of the Live Nation issue and its (until now) neglect of economic development. This is not personal animosity directed at Ike Leggett himself, but it is a set of increasingly bold efforts by some Council Members to fill what they believe is a leadership void. They are acting in part because few, if any, are actually afraid of Leggett. That presents a growing challenge not to Leggett’s ability to win re-election (which most believe he will do) but rather to his ability to govern.

Ike Leggett is simply not built for conflict. He is warm and intelligent, has a long memory, knows how to listen (or, at least, how to appear to listen) and he leaves nearly every visitor with the impression that he is on their side. That’s a good recipe for getting elected and he has perfected that method better than anyone in this county over his 20+ year career. But a politician with that skill-set is not ideally suited to staring down enemies, making and carrying out threats and intimidating the opposition. He needs to hire someone to do that for him.

Former County Executive Doug Duncan had an operative who was cast by Hollywood for the role: his special assistant, Jerry Pasternak. Cunning, ruthless and alternately menacing and charming, Pasternak was given one instruction by the boss: if you find something that’s screwed up, go fix it. And that’s what Pasternak did. Acting as a roving investigator, hole-plugger and ball-breaker, Pasternak roamed through the government and the press clearing the way for Duncan to operate at a higher level. Duncan had no need to be plagued by petty problems when his special assistant was on the case. Pasternak was so good at this that our spies still refer to him as “Darth Vader” nearly three years after he left government.

The presence of Pasternak was far from the only difference in the governing styles of the Leggett and Duncan administrations. Duncan was a bolder leader by simple temperament. He organized a virtual County Council coup in 2002 and confronted opponents in ways that Leggett would never do. But Leggett may need a Pasternak even more than Duncan because of his low-key manner. Good-cop/bad-cop routines tend to work well if played convincingly, whether in collective bargaining, business negotiations or politics. And no one will ever accuse Leggett of being a bad cop.

Pasternak himself is now employed by Bethesda super-lawyer Jack Garson and would be an even unlikelier choice for hire by Leggett than Silverman. But Leggett desperately needs a Darth Vader of his own. Because if he does not find one, the Rebellion will rage on.