Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Oh, the Humanity!

As the cold rays of sunlight pierced the County Council chamber like pins in a cushion this morning, our prediction from October came true. Vice-President Roger Berliner did not ascend to the Council President’s chair as tradition would hold. Nancy Floreen edged him out by one vote in an election decided along predictable lines. And now the Earth has stopped.

OK, maybe not. The morning started so nicely as all in attendance practically canonized outgoing President Phil Andrews. Even your cynical author brushed away a fleeting tear as Saint Phil cited Edmund Burke as a model for public service. But then the council ignored Burke’s example and proceeded to the dirty business of roasting itself on a spit.

So who are the roasters? Are they the ones who violated tradition by sending the Vice-President back to the bench? Or are they the ones who cried “ambition,” “factionalism” and “political punishment” as the snickering press scribbled every line? Does it matter?

It certainly does to Berliner’s supporters. Marc Elrich called him “the best possible candidate at the worst possible time” and said, “We need leadership without regard to factions and groups.” Duchy Trachtenberg called Berliner “gracious, collegial and productive” before condemning the “political ambition” of some. She predicted that voters would want the right to elect Council Presidents for four years themselves. “Why leave it in the hands of squabbling Council Members who will flap in the winds of political expediency?” Andrews stated his respect for tradition and said he was voting for Berliner and not against anyone else. And after Nancy Floreen claimed the office, Berliner would not meet his fate with silence. “The majority has taken us into dangerous waters where might is right,” he growled. “This is wrong.”

A word for each side. To the losers: the Vice-President has failed to become President twice before. We have previously discussed those occasions:

In 1986, an election year, Neal Potter was Vice-President and William Hanna was President. Both men were re-elected, but the election of three freshmen (Ike Leggett, Bruce Adams and Mike Subin) shifted the balance of power and Rose Crenca edged out Potter for the Presidency in 1987. Potter got the last laugh, however, as he had already served three years as President, became County Executive in 1990 and served a record six terms on the Council overall.

In 1998, another election year, William Hanna was Vice-President and Ike Leggett was President. Hanna was due to become President for a record fourth time in 1999, but he was defeated by insurgent Phil Andrews. Because there was no Vice-President available to move up, Leggett served a second consecutive year as Council President after the election, the only time that has happened in the county’s history.
The Potter example has some relevance. In that instance, an election produced a new council that changed its mind. So it is with this one. That does not prove the winners right, but it does show that their action is not totally without precedence.

To the winners: Mike Knapp, who nominated Floreen, discussed her long history of service to the county as a Council Member, Mayor, Planning Board Member and civic activist. But neither Knapp nor anyone else answered the key question of any election: why is Candidate X better than Candidate Y? No one made the case for why Floreen was more deserving than Berliner. That will no doubt encourage dark speculation on the part of those who disagree with the council’s action.

We believe that all the talk of factionalism is a bit overwrought. Elrich asked in his remarks, “What do factions mean when 90% of the votes on this council are unanimous?” He has a point. While there is a 5-4 split on some matters, it does not often affect policy. For example, the council unanimously arrived at a common recommendation on the I-270 issue. They all opposed County Executive Ike Leggett’s helicopter program. Nancy Navarro’s domestic partner benefits bill has eight co-sponsors. The ambulance fee issue did not break down on factional lines. Over and over again, Council Members who despise each other sign on to the same bills. Sometimes they do it because they believe in those bills. Often they do it because it is in their political interest. Let no one be fooled into thinking that personal affections typically prevent politicians from pursuing their self interest!

But there are factions on the council that manifest themselves every now and then. Berliner joined one of them when he supported Don Praisner over Nancy Navarro in the 2008 special election. Factional membership has rewards and risks. If Mr. Praisner was still alive, Berliner would undoubtedly be President and Floreen would be frozen out. If Berliner’s faction maintained control after 2010, Floreen might be frozen out for the full term. But Berliner’s bet did not pan out. Do we shed tears for gamblers who suffer from the dice? It is their decision, after all, to throw them.

Politicians, partisans and self-appointed poobahs have howled with rage at the break with tradition. The Post hysterically blamed it on the unions and urged the voters to “throw the rascals out.” (Let the record show that Floreen has never been endorsed by MCEA or MCGEO. Let the record also show that just 3.6% of Floreen’s contributions have come from labor PACs, whereas 6.3% of Berliner’s contributions have come from labor.) But all of this outrage misses the point: the public’s priorities are transportation, jobs, schools, health care, crime and other policy matters. If any rascals are thrown out, their failure on these issues will be the grounds. One Council Member claimed to receive just 26 emails on the Council Presidency in the last two months, with five coming as a result of the Post editorial. Bear in mind that most Council Members receive over 100 emails per day.

We understand that some politicians are intensely interested in their own status, perks and power. But they must understand that such things draw no interest from the voters. The voters care about what the politicians are doing for them, not about what the politicians are doing for – or to – themselves.

And so everyone must see their therapists, take their Prozac, slurp lustily at their whiskey bottles or do whatever else it is that they do to comfort their troubled souls. Because now, the people’s business awaits.