Thursday, November 05, 2009

What Does the Rockville Mayor Race Mean for the Rest of Us?

We don’t normally scrutinize the meaning of municipal races for county and state races. But Rockville is no ordinary municipality. It is the county seat and home to some of Montgomery’s most prominent players. And Challenger Phyllis Marcuccio’s upset win over incumbent Mayor Susan Hoffmann is a noteworthy event. Is there some message here for the rest of us?

Marcuccio, a two-term City Council Member, ran a populist campaign that knocked off freshman Mayor (and former three-term Council Member) Hoffmann by 313 votes, or five percentage points. Marcuccio was aided by departing Council Member Anne Robbins, 2005 Mayor candidate Brigitta Mullican, Board of Education Member Laura Berthiaume and former Neighborspac leader and 2007 Mayor candidate Drew Powell, who went after Hoffmann’s developer-sourced and out-of-city finances. Hoffmann, who had worked for Doug Duncan’s first County Executive campaign and was hired by him to work at the Silver Spring Regional Services Center, was the candidate of the county’s establishment.

We asked a few of our informants in and near the city what they thought of the implications of Marcuccio’s win for the District 17 Senate race and the county as a whole.

District 17 Senate: Incumbent Jennie Forehand vs. Challenger Cheryl Kagan

Spy #1:

For the D17 race, I think this is good news for Jennie and bad news for Cheryl. The grass roots won tonight. I stopped by parties for Bridget [Newton], Phyllis, and John Britton, and almost all of the opinion leaders and long time activists in Rockville were at one or more of those events. Jennie’s grass roots go deep. D17 is larger than Rockville, but I don’t think Cheryl has any large advantage in Gaithersburg and I don’t think she has a lot of fans among the people I saw tonight.
Spy #2:

Be careful about projecting the defeat of incumbent Hoffmann to portend the defeat of incumbent Forehand... you could just as easily say the victory of the grandmotherly Marcuccio against the feisty, brassy, younger Jewish candidate with a propensity for self-promotion portends Forehand’s victory over Kagan. In any event, I think the electorate in the Democrat-only primary in Garrett Park, Rockville and Gaithersburg next September will be completely different than the nonpartisan Rockville election yesterday.
Spy #3:

If it reflects a broader anti-incumbent sentiment in Rockville, that doesn’t bode well for Forehand next year. On the other hand the two incumbent council members were reelected (though a new candidate got more votes than them).
Spy #4:

Traditionally, municipal elections have had no effect on the legislative elections in District 17.
Montgomery County

Spy #1:

For outside of Rockville, it’s a little harder to draw conclusions. Part of this was a taxpayer backlash at perceived overspending/non-targeted, silly spending. Part of it was a general discomfort with the discord on the city council over you-name-the-issue, but a lot of it was that Susan took developer money and people understood the impact of that. People here like business, they want a thriving town center, but they do not want their neighborhoods destroyed by over-development or too much traffic. So, Nancy Floreen will need to think hard about whether she is going to face the same kind of backlash. I think this looks good for council members who take a fiscally conservative approach and who do not take developer money.
Spy #3:

Whether this means the end for Hoffmann is hard to know. Conventional wisdom is that if she couldn’t even win reelection as mayor, she won’t succeed at running for something else. And she’s no spring chicken. On the other hand, if she wants back in the game, she may consider another office (county council or maybe D17) in 2010 though I think it’s unlikely. And remember, Rockville terms are only two years, so if Phyllis falls short of expectations, Susan could always seek mayor again in 2011, but I think it’s more likely someone more relevant would challenge Phyllis in 2011 if appropriate, like a city council member.

I’d caution that we should be careful not to overstate the facts of a local municipal race and apply them to an entire district or county. It was a Rockville race about Rockville issues. Also, the voting base is influenced much more by Republican and independent voters because there’s no primary vote at the local level. So it’s a different universe of voters than in other races. Voter turnout is also generally much lower than other races.
Spy #5:

Here’s my take on the Rockville mayoral results: the campaign that works harder and smarter wins. That’s the only take-away for District 17, Montgomery County and anywhere else. It wasn’t “throw out the incumbents” because Marcuccio was an incumbent councilmember and the other 2 incumbent councilmembers won re-election.

Incumbents did well in Gaithersburg and Takoma Park, so at the most local level there’s no “throw the bums out” mentality. Bear in mind that it takes time for federal, state and county challenges, particular those of the fiscal variety, to filter down to the municipal level. But I wouldn’t yet conclude that the sentiment doesn’t, or won’t, exist come next primary season, when voters are asked to re-hire or fire those who are more directly involved in service cuts and tax increases. If presented with viable alternatives and the right message, voters may turn out a surprisingly high number of incumbent office holders.
Our Take:

The principal reasons for Hoffmann’s defeat were local issues relevant only to Rockville. Hoffmann had problems. First, the struggles of Rockville Town Center reflected badly on the incumbent, whether fairly or not. The inability to open a supermarket was especially troublesome. Second, Hoffmann’s alliance with City Manager Scott Ullery, whom the council rehired shortly after Hoffmann’s 2007 election, rankled some who were unhappy with Ullery’s performance. Third and most importantly, the incivility on the City Council had reached epic proportions. It is entirely possible that some voters did not maintain a play-by-play on who said what, but instead decided to punish the council’s presiding officer for its embarrassing public conduct. Finally, the fact that Hoffmann’s 2009 vote percentage of 47% was almost identical to her 2007 performance in a three-way race indicates that she did not use two years of incumbency to consolidate her support. She simply did not add to her base.

Hoffmann’s defeat may have an impact on the future of County Council District 3. The incumbent, Phil Andrews, has been in office for three terms and is a good bet to return for a fourth. But Andrews could be seeking higher office in 2014. Hoffmann would have been a strong contender for that seat if she had multiple terms as Mayor under her belt. Her contributor list reads like a who’s-who of Montgomery County politics, including Delegates Luiz Simmons (D-17) and Sheila Hixson (D-20), former Senator Ida Ruben (D-20), former County Executive Sid Kramer, Kensington Mayor Pete Fosselman, Somerset Mayor Jeffrey Slavin and numerous government staffers and lobbyists. If Hoffmann cannot make a comeback, many other people could pop up to make a run for Andrews’ open seat.

The implications for the Senate race are indirect at best. As many of our sources say, a non-partisan municipal election drawing independents and Republicans is a very different animal than a district-wide Democratic primary. And neither Jennie Forehand nor Cheryl Kagan made any public endorsements, though Forehand appeared in a Marcuccio mailer that we reprint below.

The biggest third-party beneficiary of the election may be Laura Berthiaume, a Board of Education Member who endorsed Marcuccio and three of the four winning City Council Members. Berthiaume was MCEA’s choice to take out former school board member Steve Abrams last year, but she has caused the teachers some heartburn since then. Berthiaume showed that she was willing to take some risks, play ball in city politics and pick winners – one of whom (Bridget Newton) was her 2008 campaign manager. If Berthiaume runs for Delegate or another office again, she might have an alternate route to victory than the Apple Ballot.