Thursday, January 28, 2010

Change or Die

The conventional view of politics in Montgomery County is that much depends on the balance of power and the relationships among three groups: business, labor and the civic community. That view may no longer hold because newer groups are elbowing their way to a place at the political table. But regardless of which paradigm you believe, one thing is true: no politically relevant group in the county is facing as much change as the civic world.

Montgomery County has had civic organizations for at least a century. Most of them represent neighborhoods and are largely fraternal in nature. But many of them occasionally become active on issues involving the government. Local issues can be dealt with by individual civic associations or small groups of them. But big issues demand big coalitions. And since 1925, the center of that coalition-building has been the Montgomery County Civic Federation (MCCF), a county-wide umbrella group of civics.

Over the decades, MCCF and allied organizations have fashioned a political ideology rooted in three priorities. First, they advocate for maximizing citizen input on all manner of governmental issues. Second, they consistently advocate for government transparency. These two priorities are often focused on the public schools. MCPS Superintendent and political powerhouse Jerry Weast was tormented for years over his estimates of test scores and relations with parents by legendary former MCCF President Wayne Goldstein. Third and most importantly, they favor limiting development. MCCF does not endorse political candidates, but their activists consistently favor slow-growth politicians who limit or turn away contributions from developers.

This part of the civic community reached a recent zenith in a period lasting from the late 1990s through the mid 2000s. Pro-growth development policies like Pay and Go, the battle over the ICC, the 2002 County Council campaign pitting Doug Duncan’s End Gridlock slate against Blair Ewing’s slow-growth slate and the growing prominence of developer contributions in political campaigns stirred significant civic activism. The era climaxed with the formation of Neighborspac, a group that calculated developer percentages of candidate contributions and endorsed politicians who agreed to limit them. In 2006, Neighborspac-endorsed candidates won a majority of County Council seats, but their ability to govern with a slow-growth agenda was limited by internal conflict and two special elections in District 4. Neighborspac stopped functioning soon after the 2006 election.

The influence of MCCF and its philosophy inside the civic community is now in decline for three reasons. First, the organization’s momentum has slowed with the construction of the ICC and the mismatch of its anti-development ideology with the current ruinous state of the economy. In December 2006, MCCF had 43 member organizations. In December 2007, thirteen were delinquent on dues payments. In December 2008, twenty-two were delinquent. And in October 2009, fifteen were delinquent. It’s possible that MCCF may have no more than a couple dozen active member organizations now.

Second, MCCF’s allies and leadership are falling away with questionable prospects for renewal. Over the last couple of years, friendly politicians like Neal Potter, Blair Ewing and Marilyn and Don Praisner have died. So have two of MCCF’s greatest activists, former President Wayne Goldstein and East County’s Stuart Rochester. The mean age of MCCF’s officers is 65. Six are age 70 or older and none are under 50. Of Blair Ewing’s 2002 council at-large slate, only Marc Elrich currently holds county office.

Third, MCCF is confronted by changing demographics that pose a challenge to its worldview. Consider the following facts about Montgomery County from the Census Bureau’s 2006-2008 American Community Survey.

1. Only 23% of the county’s residents were born in Maryland. Fourteen percent have lived in their current residence for one year or less.

2. The median year in which home-owners moved into their current residence was 1998. The median year in which renters moved into their current residence was 2005 or later. The median year for both groups combined was 2001. This demonstrates a significant churning in neighborhoods.

3. White non-Hispanics account for 54% of the county’s population but only 48% of the county’s population under the age of 20. The county is on the verge of becoming “majority-minority.”

4. Sixty percent of the county’s population works in the county. Ten percent work elsewhere in Maryland and thirty percent work outside the state. That means four in ten Montgomery residents cross the county line every day to work and would be better off if more jobs were available closer to home.

The MCCF’s outlook representing mostly white, long-time homeowners who are close to or past retirement age no longer matches most of Montgomery County. Even as MCCF is not changing, the rest of the county is changing without it. Many neighborhoods are turning over rapidly as retirees are replaced by young people with kids. This new generation is increasingly active in politics and in civic affairs, occasionally revitalizing inactive civic associations. To the extent that they have an evolving agenda, it focuses on job creation, schools and smart growth rather than stopping development.

These trends are starting to have a significant impact on the civic community. Consider these three recent events.

1. The three leading candidates in the 2009 District 4 special election were Board of Education Member Nancy Navarro, District 19 Delegate Ben Kramer and former MCCF President Cary Lamari. The district had been served since 1990 by Marilyn and Don Praisner, whose priorities closely matched those of MCCF and Neighborspac, and was home to a fair number of MCCF activists (like Stuart Rochester). Lamari was a civic veteran and an ally to the Praisner family, but was only able to get 8% of the vote in the Democratic primary. Navarro, who benefitted from the district’s changing demographics, barely edged out Kramer, a developer whose ilk was long opposed by traditional civic activists. Both received five times Lamari’s vote total.

2. The East County Citizens Advisory Board recently wrote to the County Council expressing concerns about the Gaithersburg West Master Plan. They did not do so out of reflexive opposition to new density. Rather, their argument was that East County needed more jobs and they worried that the Gaithersburg West plan would concentrate too many of them in the I-270 corridor. Here is a citizens group crying out for more development, not less. See the letter below.

3. MCCF opposed the White Flint Sector Plan, which would concentrate development around the White Flint Metro Station. But the Randolph Civic Association (RCA), which represents some of the neighborhoods to the east of the plan area and contains a significant number of younger residents, supported much of the plan. Delegates from RCA attended an MCCF meeting to explain their position and were met with great skepticism by the audience. RCA then dropped out of MCCF, sending a blunt letter that said in part:

The MCCF operates in a manner that fails to provide solutions or constructive alternatives to the problems of this county. Saying “NO” to everything is not a sustainable position… The MCCF is no longer representative of Montgomery County citizens. After attending an MCCF meeting it was quickly apparent that the delegates in attendance are not a reflection of Montgomery County. Montgomery County is a thriving, diverse county with many young families and young professionals. MCCF does not embody this.
We print the letter in full below.

RCA’s thirty-something leadership is exactly what MCCF needs to revitalize its organization. But new residents who belong to a younger generation with different priorities will not buy into some elements of MCCF’s anti-development ideology.

Any organization that has been around for decades eventually faces a moment when it must change or die. For the Montgomery County Civic Federation, that moment is now.