Monday, February 15, 2010

On the Post’s War Against MCEA, Part One (Updated)

The Washington Post has launched two blistering editorials against the Montgomery County Education Association (MCEA) in less than a week, accusing them of being a “toxic influence” on county politics. Are they right?

The Post makes a two-fold argument about MCEA. First, they characterize the union’s practice of asking endorsed candidates to contribute to its PAC as “shakedowns, pure and simple.” The union uses that money to finance mailings and campaign materials promoting the candidates it endorses. Second, the Post describes the goal of the union as “squeezing unaffordable concessions from the county in contract negotiations - at taxpayers’ expense.”

Let’s examine each of the Post’s charges separately, starting with its description of MCEA’s request for PAC contributions from its endorsed candidates as “shakedowns.” First, there is no evidence that the union’s endorsements are predicated on candidates’ ability to pay into its PAC. In 2006, the union announced its endorsements on June 8, but did not receive its first PAC contribution from a candidate until August 21. If the union had insisted on a PAC contribution as a condition of endorsement, why did it wait ten weeks to collect money? Second, the Gazette has reported on MCEA’s solicitation of PAC contributions as far back as October 2006, noting that the union financed mailings on behalf of its endorsed candidates without the use of members’ dues. Clearly, MCEA has been open about how it runs its PAC for years. And finally, of the 43 candidates endorsed by MCEA in primaries from 2006 on, 13 did not contribute to their PAC. Those candidates were:

State Senators
Brian Frosh (D-16)
Mike Lenett (D-19)

Jean Cryor (D-15)
Kathleen Dumais (D-15)
Brian Feldman (D-15)
Elbridge James (D-17)
Melodye Berry (D-19)
Heather Mizeur (D-20)
Charles Barkley (D-39)
Nancy King (D-39)

County Council
Howie Denis

School Board
Alies Muskin

School Board/County Council
Nancy Navarro

If the union is engaged in a “shakedown,” it is remarkably bad at it since almost a third of its candidates did not pay. And of the eight candidates listed above who won, we predict that all of them will again be endorsed by MCEA because of their records in office and regardless of their declining to contribute to its PAC. How can this be extortion if there is no punishment for not going along?

The politicians who are complaining to Post editorial writer Lee Hockstader about MCEA are driven by two motivations. First, many of them begrudge MCEA’s request that they contribute to its PAC even if the PAC proceeds are spent on mailings promoting them. Most politicians work very hard at raising money and regard it as a necessary but unpalatable chore. They want to exercise direct control over their resources and are loath to turn over their cash to anyone else. Their desire for control over their money, and not for good government, motivates their complaints.

Second, several politicians are taking this opportunity to settle scores with MCEA political strategist Jon Gerson. Gerson is a super-smart, wickedly funny man who is extremely knowledgeable about county politics. He served as campaign manager for Marilyn Praisner’s first school board race in 1982(!) and was former County Executive Neal Potter’s Director of Economic Development in the early 1990s. As bright and witty as Gerson is, he is resented by some politicians who regard him as occasionally overstepping his bounds. Their remarks about him to your author are often unprintable, but a G-rated version can be found in our latest Most Influential Series. It is no coincidence that the Post editorials mentioned Gerson by name twice as that is a reflection of the personal animosity directed against him by a portion of the county’s political class. But Gerson’s job is not to massage the quivering backsides of egotistical politicians – it is to advocate for the interests of teachers. As MCEA’s messenger, he would have a target on his back even if he wore a halo and wings to work. Multiple “pro-education” politicians have tried to humiliate Gerson by leaking to the Post even if it helps their editorial board smear his organization. It is noteworthy that none of them dare to take on MCEA openly but instead choose to whisper in the dead of night. What does it say about the character of a politician who contributes to the PAC and then snivels about it to the Post when he or she could simply tell the union no?

All of the above may be a deliciously entertaining spectacle of pettiness, but the gripes of politicians against Gerson are often too banal for coverage by even such an irresponsible rogue as your author (though the Post appears to be fixated on them). The Post’s second charge is far more serious: namely, that MCEA uses its power to extract “enormous concessions” from taxpayers. We’ll examine that allegation tomorrow.

Update: In the original version of this post, we mistakenly listed Senator Jennie Forehand and Delegates Kumar Barve and Luiz Simmons as not having contributed to MCEA’s PAC. In fact, as commenter John Cooper-Martin pointed out, their District 17 slate account contributed $6,000 to the PAC on 12/6/06. We have corrected the blog post to reflect that information.