Monday, May 17, 2010

Council At-Large: First Forum

Last Wednesday night, the four at-large County Council Members and the four challengers gathered in Kensington for their first forum. There will be many more, but first impressions are important. Here’s our take.

The Kensington Town Hall’s auditorium is a great place for candidate forums as it is spacious and has high ceilings. Unfortunately, a theater company was using most of the space so a crowd of at least 250 people was jammed into a quarter of the room. Standing room only was the rule.

Moderator and state party chair Susie Turnbull took questions from the crowd written on index cards, but quickly amassed a big stack of them – way too many to be asked in two hours. Turnbull’s approach was to edit and amalgamate the questions into a handful of subjects and rephrase them herself. This infuriated many members of the audience who preferred that their exact questions be posed. Our advice to future debate moderators is that if twelve questions refer to the same subject, do not edit or combine them – just pick the one that asks the question best. That will avoid feelings by the crowd of disenfranchisement. Nevertheless, all eight candidates had adequate opportunity to speak and that is the key job of any moderator.

Celebrity Row: Council District 2 candidate Sharon Dooley (smiling at left), County Executive candidate Daniel "The Wig Man" Vovak (center), Kensington Mayor Pete Fosselman (right).

The forum’s questions focused on the budget, competing with Fairfax, the ICC and White Flint, with the budget accounting for at least half of the air time. When will MoCo ever stop talking about the ICC? Why is a nearly complete state project still a campaign issue? For the record, incumbent Council Members Marc Elrich and Duchy Trachtenberg and challengers Hans Riemer and Fred Evans oppose the project while incumbents Nancy Floreen and George Leventhal and challengers Becky Wagner and Jane de Winter support it. That concludes our commentary on that subject.

We noticed a clear pattern separating the incumbents from the challengers. Several of the incumbents offered resumes as their opening statements and occasionally as their answers. The challengers tended to focus instead on what they thought was important in the future. We prefer the challengers’ approach. If the incumbents’ record is so great, why is the budget nearly a billion dollars in deficit? It’s understandable that the incumbents would introduce their records and depict themselves as more substantive than the challengers, but all candidates should be focused on the next term. That is, after all, what will be decided by the fall’s election.

Your author took many pages of barely legible notes but more importantly quizzed members of the audience after the forum ended. Here are the candidates ranked not only by our estimation, but also by the activists, voters and other candidates present to whom we spoke.

1 (tie). George Leventhal, Incumbent

Leventhal was clearly experienced with the format, which often required candidates to jam their answers into sixty seconds with a flashing card waived at ten seconds left. That was a big advantage as he came across as knowledgeable, serious and forceful. Leventhal expressed very well where the county should be headed, citing White Flint as an example of concentrating economic activity in high-rises near transit while preserving attractive single-family neighborhoods nearby. (Wagner and Riemer said much the same thing.) On the budget, he said the county should not have any “sacred cows” and that the council was seeking “equitable sacrifice in the budget.” Leventhal said, “I’m a better councilman than when I took office… In my third term, I will be a more cautious and a more prudent spender.” This is an implicit admission of what every politician knows but few will say: the county cannot afford to spend the same amounts as it has in the past.

Many audience members respected Leventhal because he was capable, well-prepared and could speak well on a variety of subjects. The one suggestion we offer to him is to throw in a bit of humor. Leventhal is one of the county’s funniest politicians – right up there with House Majority Leader Kumar “Bad Boy” Barve. If he can take advantage of that, he will clean up in future debates.

1 (tie). Marc Elrich, Incumbent

Elrich also did well in the debate format. Like Leventhal, he comes across as knowledgeable, prepared and versatile. He is also occasionally surprising. In response to a question about competing with Fairfax, he cited the need to simplify procedures for developers(!) Is this the same Elrich who refuses developer contributions and explicitly ran against them in past campaigns? Elrich had one of the best closing lines of any candidate, telling the audience, “I want to come back to give you a representative you can trust. Even if we disagree, you can come in and talk to me.” Elrich is known as a very accessible Council Member who goes out of his way to make time for “little guys,” so this will go down well with the many people who have benefitted from his aid.

One thing Elrich could do better is avoid planning lingo and explain his positions in simpler terms. The next time he utters “non-auto mode share” in a debate, we are going to make that phrase his nickname. Elrich should also talk up his countywide BRT system proposal more. It is not merely a good transit project; it is also a way to grow the economy without growing the number of cars quite so much. Furthermore, it can be a foundation for good land-use planning. Elrich is an unusual politician because your author actually has to tell him to promote his good ideas!

3 (tie). Becky Wagner, Challenger

Wagner is a skilled communicator with a winning personality. She is good at both one-on-one speaking as well as public presentation and it really shows. On policy, Wagner is close to Leventhal: arguing for more job growth, more transportation projects (including roads) and greater density near transit. Wagner linked protecting the Agricultural Reserve – which is at least a rhetorical priority for all politicians – to master plans like White Flint, saying that growing the economy while protecting a third of its land meant urbanizing much of the rest of the county. Wagner responded to a question about why she should replace an incumbent by saying, “I think that we can do better…We have watched for four years while the level of discourse has been disappointing.” She offered a good closing line: “We can be great again if we can rise above self-interest.”

Some members of the audience panned Wagner for being too “lofty” and not specific. A couple young people said she would not be a natural choice for their demographic. But most people who actually meet Wagner like her, and in our experience, that counts for a lot.

Left to right: George Leventhal, Hans Riemer, Duchy Trachtenberg, Becky Wagner.

3 (tie). Hans Riemer, Challenger

Riemer is a better candidate than he was in 2006. He has more confidence and can speak on a broader variety of issues. He has added a touch of fiscal responsibility to his traditional smart growth message, asserting that if the county does not watch its spending, “our good friend Robin Ficker will probably be County Executive.” When asked why he should replace an incumbent, Riemer replied, “Are we going to reward the people who got us into this situation? We need fresh faces and a new start.” Riemer de-emphasized incentives in attracting business, arguing that affordable commercial space, more housing and more transportation are more important. Like Leventhal and Wagner, he stressed using density around transit to grow the economy, saying that it was “the only socially sustainable, economically sustainable solution.”

Riemer’s supporters really like him and expected him to blow away the other candidates. While he held his own, he did not quite measure up to some of their expectations. One thing that is noteworthy about Riemer is that he is a better listener than a talker. That is a very attractive quality one-on-one and in small groups but does not translate well to large forums. Still, one can never have enough people with listening skills in government.

Left to right: Jane de Winter, Nancy Floreen, Marc Elrich, Fred Evans, Susie Turnbull.

5. Nancy Floreen, Incumbent

Floreen is one of the county’s veteran public servants, having served two terms on the Planning Board and two terms on the council. But this was not her night as she ran hot and cold. Floreen has a pleasant demeanor and an even public temperament that serve her well but she occasionally appeared distracted. In response to a question about the budget, she said with a bit of emotion, “Yesterday, when we heard that the Board of Education had authorized a lawsuit against us, we were cutting libraries by 25%... We feel bad.” The moment was a bit awkward. And in response to a question about competing with Fairfax, Floreen said, “We don’t have Dulles. We don’t have the Pentagon. We need to continue doing what we’re doing, which is investing in our quality of life.” She also cited our superior master plans as a competitive advantage. So we should be doing rather well, right? How come we aren’t? Why not answer this question by promoting the proposal for a new economic development authority, which is after all Floreen’s idea?

Other than Fred Evans, who just got into the race, Floreen was the only candidate who did not come with signs and/or literature. Rockville spies are beginning to notice that she has not yet put together a campaign infrastructure equal to a tough at-large race. Let’s be fair: Floreen is Council President during an unprecedented budget crisis and that is eating up most of her time and energy. Floreen needs to tighten up, snap the whip on her campaign and come back sharp when the budget is done. Based on her history, that’s what we expect to see.

6. Duchy Trachtenberg, Incumbent

Trachtenberg comes across as tough and competent, but that’s it. She has a tendency to lecture the audience rather than converse with them. She says her record “speaks for itself,” but sometimes does not say what that record is. She brushes over some subjects. For example, in answer to a question about Fairfax, she focused only on how to work with the state on business incentives and did not talk about the broader economic climate in the two counties. She has a decent message, which boils down to fiscal conservatism and protecting vulnerable people. But she also does things like calling herself “courageous.” Politicians should never call themselves courageous – they should explain their records and positions, and let the audience decide if that is indeed courageous. No one to whom we spoke singled out Trachtenberg for praise, but they were not excessively negative about her either.

7. Fred Evans, Challenger

Evans is a retired MCPS principal who has the bearing of a leader. That said, he just entered the race and does not seem to know a lot about subjects outside the school system. When asked why he was running, he said, “What I bring is knowledge of half the budget and a passion for politics.” Evans needs to present a more compelling reason for why he is the best choice instead of one of the incumbents.

8. Jane de Winter, Challenger

De Winter is a substantive woman who has something to offer, but it is just painful to watch her in public. She speaks in soft, fast monotones while occasionally looking at the ceiling. She lost her train of thought multiple times and on one occasion asked to be reminded of the question even though only sixty seconds were allowed for answers. This is a case of style sabotaging substance. On policy, she seems to be close to Leventhal and Wagner.

Overall, no one dominated. Leventhal and Elrich did very well while Wagner and Riemer held their own. The audience was polite and clapped occasionally while not erupting for or against any candidate. All the candidates should smile more often, loosen up and talk about the next four years rather than the last four. Would it really kill them to crack a joke? As the challengers get used to the format, they should improve. But will anyone make any mistakes? Will any challengers show themselves as truly capable of knocking out an incumbent? Those questions were not answered Wednesday night and remain for future forums.